Archive for the 'theater' Category

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Virtual Reality from The Balcony

It used to be called the “new new thing.” That next piece of networked hardware or software that was going to blow open new vistas in human experience and open the wallets of people all across the land. Every once in a while the pundits decide that it’s virtual reality gear. Oculus Rift and MS Hololens are the current standard bearers of this particular dream. Virtual reality is an externalization of interior space. It’s a technology that’s meant to take things we imagine and pipe them directly into someone else’s imagination as a product you can buy.

We call it “virtual reality” because very little suspension of disbelief is required. The audience member shouldn’t have to interpret or fill in pieces of the dream. The dream itself provides all the fidelity of a “real” experience. Of course, this is a very naive view of how reality is experienced by humans.

Once the uncanny valley is traversed, the importance of the hardware will fall away. That means technology will have defeated the human sensory system’s ability to distinguish between a created reality and a given reality. It then becomes a question of what virtual reality you desire. When you escape this world and enter a predesigned world-like experience, what will you choose?

The model, Kate Upton, plays a character in a video game called “Game of War.” Celebrities can sell the specifications of their likeness, and create filmed segments, that put them inside these virtual reality experiences. It won’t be long before individual game players actually pay to have all of their personal data uploaded into the game engine so that they too can be rendered into the virtual world. There’s only one real Kate Upton, but in virtual reality everyone can participate in a story with the model (or a model of the model).

Interrogating these fantasies becomes a key not just to the potential future of the technology, but to the minds behind the effort. The San Francisco-based theater group, The Collected Works has taken on the challenge by deciding that now is the right time to produce Jean Genet’s “The Balcony.” In the play, clients in a brothel pay to play the roles of figures of authority while a rebellion unfolds in the city around them. Many meta-narratives ensue for the characters. Even the audience is implicated in the play’s layers of reality and illusion. Genet gives us virtual reality without the technical apparatus.

The character of the Chief of Police wishes nothing more than to enter the secret desires of the brothel’s customers. He hopes that a customer will choose to impersonate him in their secret virtual reality sessions. One can easily imagine the technologists of virtual reality (the nerds, the geeks) hoping that the audience will choose to enact the role of the creator of technologies It’s always the next step for the latest edition of the “masters of the universe.”

Sometimes a theatrical performance is timed to play with themes coursing through the culture. In this case, the venue couldn’t be more perfect. It’s San Francisco’s Old Mint. You know, the place where they used to print money. The Collected Works has the opportunity to open up the beating heart of the zeitgeist, raise it above their heads, and show it to us in performance.

Zombie Microsoft Must Die

Zombie-title

These days so much of the world is seen through the lens of the horror movie. Even thinking about software seems to have that character. RSS is declared dead, but lives on. Software eats the world. Microsoft is declared dead by the cloud vendors, but continues to live on in zombie form. When the fundamental computing environment changes to such a degree that a particular software solution would no longer be generated from the new set of assumptions, it’s the beginning of the end. While zombie software still operates, its roots are in the previous computing environment. Uprooted, it continues to live, but lacks purchase for continued organic growth in the new soils of computing. In a zombie apocalypse, the undead triumph over the living.

I will knock down the Gates of the Netherworld,
I will smash the door posts, and leave the doors flat down,
and will let the dead go up to eat the living!
And the dead will outnumber the living!

Ishtar in the Epic of Gilgamesh

While the Stacks have settled into small group of feudal kingdoms, the raison d’etre of each of them is to be the One. A single platform would be so much more efficient, surely it’s the most rational way to proceed. At this level, platform software has the character of an extra-terrestrial virus that when mixed with earth’s biosphere rampantly multiplies killing all other life forms and replacing them with a version of itself. But in a nice way, with more efficiency and productivity. Imagine being undead as a positive thing. In the movies this fantasy plays out in a number of ways. The Andromeda Strain, The Thing, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and my favorite, Five Million Years to Earth, all address our fear of being consumed and turned into alien beings. The malevolence we feel is not so much evil as the amoral neutrality of an algorithm executing until completion. In Kurt Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle” it’s called “Ice Nine”, a substance that turns all water it touches into more ice nine.

From the Wikipedia entry on Ice Nine:

Ice-nine is a fictional material appearing in Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Cat’s Cradle. Ice-nine is supposedly a polymorph of water more stable than common ice (Ice Ih); instead of melting at 0 °C (32 °F), it melts at 45.8 °C (114.4 °F). When ice-nine comes into contact with liquid water below 45.8 °C (thus effectively becoming supercooled), it acts as a seed crystal and causes the solidification of the entire body of water, which quickly crystallizes as more ice-nine. As people are mostly water, ice-nine kills nearly instantly when ingested or brought into contact with soft tissues exposed to the bloodstream, such as the eyes.

In the story, it is developed by the Manhattan Project for use as a weapon, but abandoned when it becomes clear that any quantity of it would have the power to destroy all life on earth. A global catastrophe involving freezing the world’s oceans with ice-nine is used as a plot device in Vonnegut’s novel.

Many feared that Microsoft was on the verge of achieving 100% domination of computing before the consent decree from the justice department breaking up the monopoly. For many in the technology community that was the climax of the horror film, the invading virus was finally defeated by the United States Government. A space was opened up for other platforms to grow and prosper. But the seeds of a sequel were planted. As a practical matter, Microsoft was prevented from securing world domination, but the attitude that desired world domination remained dominant. In the new post-consent decree world the nascent platforms saw this as their chance at world domination. They took aim at Microsoft.

software-update-icon

Time passes and a key element in the computing environment changes. The mechanism and speed of software upgrades is fundamentally altered through network-connected computing. More recently cloud services offer that same speed for the most software infrastructure. Just as mobile devices disrupted desktop computing, the speed of network-based software updates have made the shrink wrapped software business obsolete. In a sense software itself becomes mobile, it has a speed and trajectory. The large installed base of enterprise software has remained locked into the slow upgrade cycle of the last era of computing. We now see the personal technology of the worker far outstripping the technology of the corporation.

The real innovation in software was creating the environment where updating, refactoring and completely revising software programs isn’t a painful event. In fact, it isn’t an event at all — just an everyday activity. The capacity to implement real-time upgrades and lower the cost of change is much more important than whatever software is currently in use. Because next week or next month, the software will be improved with a seamless incremental upgrade. It’s one reason that software version numbers don’t really make sense any more. The major version numbers used to signal to users and administrators the cost and level of pain involved in adopting the new version.

pirate_flag

As speed became important, Microsoft got faster too. So much so that the most current set of Microsoft products are qualitatively different than the previous generation. Microsoft has pulled so far ahead of Microsoft that a large gap has been created. Microsoft can now look back and see Microsoft in the distance. This is the moment in the horror movie where the monster is split in two. And while all the other technology platforms are fighting Zombie Microsoft, there’s a new piece of Microsoft that’s also fighting against the Zombie. Something similar happened at Apple when a separate team flying a pirate flag was broken off to work on the Macintosh. Microsoft has joined the field of companies competing against Microsoft. They find themselves in a strange situation — in order for Microsoft to live, Microsoft must die at the hands of Microsoft.

The Internet of the Outernet of the Internet

handfixinghand

The Internet is, after all, an Outernet. The “Inter” refers to the interconnection of external networks by way of a common protocol. But there’s also a sense in which we imagine it as an external expression of our vast interior mental space. Sometimes this is called cyberspace, and it used to be described as the mental space we enter when talking on the telephone. Like our internal space, the Internet is mostly invisible to us, waiting to be uncovered through the focus of our attention. We commonly make sense of the Internet as an internal, private place. It’s a social space we project our thoughts into while in total isolation. The external digital artifacts that we produce in the course of our online activity have begun to function as an emulation of our internal space.

server-farm

Recently emulation has gone meta. Starting long ago with the steam engine and continuing with the computer we have a set of tools capable of emulating the functionality of a whole range of other tools. The meta-level of emulation is emulating an operating system within a different operating system—emulating a platform in which emulated tools run. Internally we also emulate when we have an ambition to equal or surpass another and attempt to do so through a form of imitation. We internalize a platform on which to run the programs we admire.

There are two figures recently in the news who are engaged in forms of emulation. Just two guys you might see on public transit on the way to work.

sergey-on-subway

francis-on-bus

The first is Sergey Brin. With his Google Glass project he begins to emulate Robert Downey Jr. In the film Iron Man.

sergey-glasses

ironman

The second is Jorge Mario Bergoglio. By taking the name Francis, as Pope he begins to emulate Saint Francis.

Pope-Francis-washing-feet

st-francis

Each man is attempting to change the world. Brin with a wearable network computing device to augment human capability. Pope Francis by creating a poor church that is for the poor. Brin’s activities are well known, if not very well understood. Pope Francis’s project is perhaps more obscure—but it is also a technical response to the state of the world. It’s a strategy that could be viewed as the opposite of augmentation.

One way into understanding this idea of a “poor church for the poor” is to take a trip back to the 1960s and the poor theater of Jerzy Grotowski. Faced with the competition of television, the movies and broadway shows of increasing levels of technical sophistication, Grotowski attempted to isolate what was uniquely powerful in the theater. By stripping away everything, he arrived at a Poor Theater that focused on the actor-spectator relationship. He was a Saint Francis of the avant-garde theater.

From Jerzy Grotowski’s “Toward a Poor Theater

What is theater? What is unique about it? What can it do that film and television cannot? Two concrete conceptualization crystallized: the poor theater, and performance as an act of transgression.

By gradually eliminating whatever proved superfluous, we found that theater can exist without make-up, without autonomic costume and scenography, without a separate performance area (stage), without lighting and sound effects, etc. It cannot exist without the actor-spectator relationship of perceptual, direct, “live” communion. This is an ancient theoretical truth, of course, but when rigorously tested in practice it undermines most of our usual ideas about theatre. It challenges the notion of theatre as a synthesis of disparate creative disciplines — literature, sculpture, painting, architecture, lighting, acting (under the direction of a metteur-en-scene). This “synthetic theatre” is a contemporary theatre, which we readily call the “Rich Theater” — rich in flaws.

The Rich Theatre depends on artistic kleptomania, drawing from other disciplines, constructing hybrid-spectacles, conglomerates without backbone or integrity, yet presented as an organic artwork. By multiplying assimilated elements, the Rich Theatre tries to escape the impasse presented by movies and television. Since film and TV excel in the area of mechanical functions (montage, instantaneous change of place, etc.), the Rich Theatre countered with a blatantly compensatory call of “total theatre.” The integration of borrowed mechanism (movie screens onstage, for example) means a sophisticated technical plant, permitting great mobility and dynamism. And if the stage and/or auditorium were mobile, constantly changing perspective would be possible. This is all nonsense.

No matter how much theatre expands and exploits its mechanical resources, it will remain technologically inferior to film and television. Consequently, I propose poverty in theatre.

Pope Francis employs a similar strategy when he envisions a poor church that is for the poor. Ever escalating levels of finery, technology, capital and broadcast platforms don’t get him closer to his goal. It’s only through emulating the poverty of Saint Francis that he can reach the connection he’s after. Even in an era of streaming high-definition 3D video with 5.1 six channel surround sound to any screen anywhere, for the message he’s sending, the signal is stronger from a poor church.

For Brin, the Google Glasses he wears wirelessly connect to a network of industrial cloud computing installations around the world. These external data sources are able to feed information as multiple media types into the local context to provide a highest level of personal augmentation. For the moment, Brin is one of the few who can take advantage of this new technology. The connection he’s after requires strong wireless broadband coverage and connection to a series of algorithms that send him information based on his particular personal, social and location data.

supermarket-shelf-shampoos

If we assume that every moment of life can be optimized when we are fed the appropriate sets of contextual information on which to base our moment-to-moment decisions, then the Google Glass will deliver us to a life lead to its fullest. Confronted with a shelf in a supermarket aisle filled with hundreds of brands and formulations of shampoo, we will finally be able to select just the right brand given our hair type. At last we will be able to make the right decision when choosing between Coke, Pepsi and some fancy new gourmet cola-flavored soda. The fit between Sergey’s consumption of the world and what is available to be consumed will be perfectly optimized given the existing data set. In fact, were it to reach perfection, his participation would hardly be required at all–achieving frictionless consumption.

Both Sergey and Francis have taken steps to become jacked in to the present moment. Each set of steps has an ethical underpinning—much in the way Schumacher discusses the operation of “value” in his essay on Buddhist Economics. What we accept as valuable sets the terms of the economy we live within. The same thing is true of a path to the now.

Olympians: Caliban and Blake

The New York Times called it ‘weird’ and ‘unabashedly British.’ Some other descriptors included ‘wild jumble, celebratory, eccentric, off-the-wall, noisy, busy, witty, dizzying, slightly insane, and zany.’ In the end, the opening ceremony for the 2012 Olympic games, created by director Danny Boyle, was boiled down to a tribute to the anarchic spirit of the British. After all, the winner of the motto contest for the Olympics was “No Motto Please, We’re British.” The spectacle was packed with much more than can be quickly unpacked in a short essay, but there were a couple of moments that really caught me eye.

The thing that caused a conservative member of Parliament to call the ceremony too “lefty and multicultural” was that it wasn’t an unequivocal, unqualified positive portrait of Great Britain. It’s interesting to contrast its project with the production four years ago in China. Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony spectacular offered a vision of how we all really got here—to this spot–where these games will be played with competitors from all over the planet. By definition the Olympics are multicultural and to some extent ‘lefty.’ But to hold that mirror up to the world is still a dangerous proposition. Best to be thought of as ‘zany’ rather than serious.

I’m reminded of something I recently heard in Paris. Some citizens there were discussing the question as to whether France should be multicultural or not. One need only walk around the streets of Paris to know that the question is moot. Rather than start from a position of purity, Boyle starts with the words of Caliban, a moon calf, a freckled monster, recited by the actor Kenneth Branagh:

CALIBAN
Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked,
I cried to dream again.

The Tempest 3.2.148-156
William Shakespeare

Caliban’s dreams far outstrip his reality and so he cries to ‘dream again.’ In essence he seems to be dreaming of pastoral Great Britain, something well beyond his grasp.

While the floor of the stadium is portraying pastoral Great Britain we hear the anthem “Jerusalem” with music by Sir Hubert Parry, written in 1916. The words are by the visionary poet William Blake. Presaged in the poem are the dark Satanic Mills that transform the green and pleasant land to an industrial machine.

Jerusalem
(The Preface to ‘Milton, a poem)
William Blake

And did those feet in ancient time.
Walk upon England’s mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England’s pleasant pastures seen!

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green and pleasant Land

John Lienhard describes what Blake meant by the phrase ‘I will not cease from Mental Fight:’

Blake, the sensible observer of the human lot, outlines our responsibility. We can’t shrink from the mental fight of building a world fit for habitation. When he asks for his bow, arrows, spear, and chariot of fire, he’s reaching for tools with which to build that world. He’s arming for mental fight. He realized that, from now on, nature would shine through the fire and mills only if we had the wits to make it do so.

It’s difficult to imagine the courage, the mental fight that Boyle had to muster to show the world this stage picture of England during the industrial age:

The information age follows the industrial age in Boyle’s telling of the story. And here all our modern stories are woven together into the multicultural fabric that we inhabit. Of particular note in the transition section is the tribute to the National Health Service.

And finally the entrance of the athletes by country in alphabetical order. The exceptions are Greece which traditionally enters first, and the host country, Great Britain which enters last. The randomness of the sequence of the letters of the alphabet presents us with strange and beautiful juxtapositions of countries and cultures. While the Olympics are contests of physical skill, they also represent a shining example of ceaseless mental fight.

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