Archive for July, 2009

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The Edge of the Picture: The Frame and The Chrome

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The framing of a question serves to limit the field of response. A conceptual framework defines a set of tools for construction and analysis. The frame of a picture defines the edges, the boundaries of a particular vision. When we think about computers, operating systems, executable applications, and networking capability we’re looking at an industrial production infrastructure that defines the possibilities of a product set. The capability to connect to the Network was a late addition to a mature product.

The personal computer revolution allowed each person to have a computer of her own. The model of time sharing on a mainframe had created a scarce resource. The personal computer meant sharing was no longer an issue. One of the keys to the growth of the personal computer was that each computer also had the capacity to create new software. The system used by developers and end users was essentially the same. It was both a reading and a writing machine.

If you were to purchase a computer today that was unable to connect to the Network, you would consider it fundamentally broken. For many, using a computer is browsing web pages. The concept and economics of what a web page is has largely been determined by what Content Management Systems can build and what Web Analytics packages can measure.

While large economies have been built up around these particular frames, there’s nothing in the actual human-computer interaction or the underlying protocols that point to its necessity. If you were to pluck out the real human transactions that flow across these systems and networks, and then set out to build a supporting hardware and software infrastructure, you would end up in a very different place. The original personal computer was a solution to a specific set of problems in that environment. Here we may ask, what is our current environment and what solutions does it suggest?

In 1984, John Gage said, “The Network is the computer.” Google’s Chrome OS, Browser and HTML5 are a conceptual framework for the environment described by Gage’s phrase. And as we look at this adjustment to the frame, we no longer ask what is the computer capable of; instead we ask, what is the Network capable of. All of the players are positioning themselves to work within this new frame. The announcement of the Chrome OS is the pivot point, figure and ground have reversed.

There’s a wonderful story about a conversation between Ludwig Wittgenstein and Elizabeth Anscombe. She says to Wittgenstein that she can understand why people thought the sun revolved around the earth. Puzzled, Wittgenstein asks why. Anscombe replies, “Well, it looks that way.” Wittgenstein pauses for a moment, and then says: “…and how would it look if the earth revolved around the sun?”

Boundaries of the Real-Time Stream: The Ping and The Tweet

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Omniscience is the capacity to know everything infinitely—from the strangest sub-atomic particle to the thought that just drifted through my mind. As finite creatures we long for the infinite, for the chance to peer through the lens of the all seeing eye. The boundaries of omniscience tend to form around the idea of ‘what is knowable’ and the event horizon of time. It’s possible that we could know everything that had already occurred— especially if there was some form of documentation, a written record. Things that have recently occurred are contained in the set of things that have already occurred. Time future has not yet happened, and so is only a possibility. Knowable perhaps only as a probability. And what of time present? That set of things rising just now over the horizon—what of everything that is happening right now?

This is the problem of the live web, or real-time search— how shall we know all that is in the state of becoming in time present? Here again we must speak of what is knowable. The knowable is a thing that has entered language, has registered its presence in a system of re-presentation. The thing-itself cannot be spoken, so we make do with the artifacts of re-presentation. But even here, as we scour the record for instances of wet ink to determine what has just been noted down, we find ourselves looking at the very recent past.

The apparatus created to capture time present are necessarily built around the activity of encoding re-presentations— making a mark in a medium, something to stand for the new thing.

Subscription and polling works by me asking you if you’ve done anything new lately. And then asking you again at regular intervals. Eventually, I’ll ask and you’ll answer with something new. The list of those new things is a kind of picture of what’s happening now.

The ping server is a kind of centralized carbon paper. As a publication event on the Network occurs at a remote endpoint, a ping is sent to a central repository noting that some new thing has happened. Presumably we could watch the pings as they come in to the server to get an idea of what is happening now. Obviously this would only include those events that chose to concurrently ping the server as they pressed the publish button. A feed of these new items can be constructed to provide a picture of what’s being published right now.

If we continue with the carbon paper metaphor and move up the stack through the top layer of paper to the tip of the pen itself, we have the other point from which we have a view of what’s happening now. The ink, as it flows through the nib of the pen, forms shapes on the paper— encoding (re-presenting) the new thing. (Or perhaps we should talk about fingers pressing keys on a keyboard causing typographic characters to spill forth in a linear sequence across a screen.) Facebook, Twitter, FriendFeed, and eventually Google Wave are the pens with which we write. The 140 character limit is the boundary that trails the present moment. The tweet captures the thing that happened at least 140 characters ago. While with Google wave, we will have character-by-character recording of the present moment—phonemes that haven’t yet fully manifested as words. Here also, we have a real-time view of the things written with these particular pens. Although through connections to the SMS and email systems, most cellular telephones will serve the purpose of real-time authoring tools.

Knowledge (what is knowable) is equated with a certain set of techniques for re-presenting a thing. Linear typography is the preferred mode. But when we share what’s happening right now, we might use a photograph or a sound/video stream. When operating in real time we often employ ostension. We gesture toward the thing itself. Rather than translate a thing into words, we use its image, or its sound. We say, “it’s like this.” And then shrug in the direction of the thing to which we refer. Twitter is a citation medium par excellence, a few words and link that points. This is where the web of sites becomes a web of citations.

When we talk of the real-time stream on the Network we sometimes fall into thinking that we could achieve a kind of omniscience. We believe that there might be some way to know every single thing that is happening now— just as we can index, search and sort things that exist at known locations in the name space of the Network. While these streams eventually flow into the ocean of the Network, they currently run between well-defined boundaries. It’s only at the very tip of the pen that the real time manifests as real time.

Pina Bausch: Poet of Performance (1940 – 2009)

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The difference I suppose is one of presence—of the energy field that envelopes the performers and the audience for the duration of the performance. It must be felt directly, it can’t be translated into video or text and transported for decoding and consumption at a remote endpoint. My first experience of Pina Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal was the piece called ‘Palermo Palermo’ at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. I’d read about her work extensively, but this was my first taste.

Pina Bausch passed away yesterday, she was 68 years old. Bausch had just completed a new work, and was preparing for upcoming performances. She was one of the few artists who was required viewing in my book. If you could see a performance, there was no alternative, you must go. Now we must try to do the impossible; conjure a semblance of what it was like to be in the presence of a performance.

‘Palermo Palermo’ began with the stage completely obscured by a floor-to-ceiling wall of cinder blocks. As the lights in the auditorium dimmed, the audience was confronted with this wall. Slowly one detected movement, something was happening to the wall. It was falling backward onto the stage, and it struck with an incredible crash. The air was filled with dust, the stage was covered with broken cinder blocks, the music started up and dancers appeared—running madly across the field of broken stone.

My last encounter with Bausch’s ensemble was in Berkeley, at Zellerbach Hall. I happened to be sitting in the first row, and during a particular sequence in the performance, Dominique Mercy was asking people in the audience to make a snoring sound. This was my one contribution to Bausch’s body of work— a loud snore from the first row.

Cafe Muller

The Rite of Spring

Nelken

Walzer

Il lamento dell’imperatrice

Pina Bausch settled in, and lived her life, on the boundary between dance and theater. Her interest was not in how people move, but rather in what moves people. Her pieces were without beginning or end, constructed from the real-time lives and emotions of the dancers performing the piece. Standing at the edge, or perhaps a bit beyond it, there are no hard and fast rules about what can and cannot be included in a performance. It’s a rare artist who can consistently create passionate, engaging works from that position over a long career.

Lee Yanor’s short film on Pina Bausch captures the movement of the choreographer’s hands. Her works often had a mythic scale to them, but they began, perhaps, with her hands thinking through the movements that moved her dancers through the dance.

Pina Bausch, may “…flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”

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