Archive for November, 2009

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While Interpreting The Instruction Set, I Encounter An Ambiguous Opening…


We seem to live in an age where the algorithm serves as an extension of our desire. This picaresque ramble contemplates what it means to follow a rule, what the boundaries of a rule are meant to contain, and the morality of rewriting and overwriting a rule. In his book on the algorithm, David Berlinski provides a definition:

In the logician’s voice

an algorithm is
a finite procedure,
written in a fixed symbolic vocabulary,
governed by precise instructions,
moving in discrete steps, 1, 2, 3, …,
Whose execution requires no insight, cleverness, intuition, intelligence, or perspicuity,
and that sooner or later comes to an end,

Within the conceptual machine of the algorithm, we envision the creation of software agents that will encapsulate and encode our desires. These secret agents will be unleashed upon the virtual and augmented world to locate the conditions and process the data that match a predetermined map of our dreams and passions.


But let’s hit the back button on this train of thought. The interface for this exploration appeared the other night at an art opening. Paul Madonna was introducing his new work at Electric Works. On a table in the entry way to the exhibition were a number of books. In addition to Paul’s new book, there was a book by David Byrne called Arboretum. This book contained a number of drawings that I immediately wanted to willfully misinterpret. Byrne’s drawings are mind maps that show connections/relations between things— they represent a kind of systemic history in some cases, or the dynamics/economics of a system in others. They have a strong relationship to Diderot’s organizational ideas for his encyclopedia.


David Byrne, History of Mark-making

There was something about the visual character of Byrne’s drawings that reminded me of the music notation and compositional titles of the saxophonist Anthony Braxton. When music notation is at its most strict, it tells us precisely how a piece can be replicated. The player piano uses piano rolls to produce near identical performances. In the fake book, we might just get the chord changes and the melody— the arrangement is up to us. Braxton takes this kind of abstraction to another level in some of his notation that borders on encoding synesthesia— where color and shape are meant to guide the performers.


Braxton’s Composition #76

Somehow by combining the notation of Braxton and the tree drawings of Byrne, I imagine conjuring up a notation system for an exploration through conversation, a kind of performance script. While, as Umberto Eco notes, the list can be a flexible tool, engendering both anarchic and organizational impulses— I find myself drawn to these maps of notation. When I engage in conversations about strategic direction, I always imagine them taking place within a terrain with specific dynamics.

By Berlinski’s definition, these musical instruction sets aren’t algorithms. Their execution requires insight, cleverness, intuition, intelligence, and perspicuity. The performer has to make decisions, exercise options, contribute variable inputs that will result in a variety of outputs. In that sense, they function more like a game.

In business, there’s an attempt to codify process to the extent that all of its aspects are substitutable. Even as parts of the machine are replaced, it’s output remains constant and consistent. This is the industrial commodity as ideal. Variances are a sign of poor management.

The script for a theatrical performance is another kind of instruction set. Notational experiments in this realm are also highly instructive. A few years back I attended a performance of the Wooster Group’s Poor Theater. The text of the performance was largely other performances, and the group’s performance itself described as a simulacra. For instance a performance piece, where the movements are the performers’ response to, and modeling of, a cowboy film projected to the side of the stage.


Elizabeth LeCompte by Leibowitz

Elizabeth LeCompte experiments with both what counts as a performance text, and what counts as a vital interpretation. She even refuses to be limited to a single text (instruction set), with the Wooster Group’s La Didone she weaves together a performance based on Cavalli’s opera combined with Mario Brava’s 1965 science fiction film Planet of the Vampires.

Cavalli’s Didone

Brava’s Planet of the Vampires

Wooster Group’s Didone

The mashup, the remix, the blending of instruction sets to produce something entirely new is what the process of creation has always already been. The boundary between recipes loses importance if the meal is well presented and delicious— a new recipe is created.

These two relationships to rule sets define much of human experience. The one approaches the regularity of the machine, while the other can careen off into what seems to be unbounded chaos. One set must be followed to the letter (a machine is the optimal performer), the other leaves openings for a two-way interaction. But the act of writing back into the interface is fraught with danger. It stands on the border of transgression, or transumption. When we don’t follow a rule set, but instead apply a new rule set from different context, we can be perceived as willfully misreading, incompetence or breaking local laws. Edward Said, in his reading of Harold Bloom’s A Map of Misreading, describes the Oedipal resonances:

Thus Bloom writes: “To live, the poet must mis-interpret [his literary] father, by the crucial act of misprision, which is the re-writing of the father.” Consequently a poet is not a man speaking to other men, but “a man rebelling against being spoken to by a dead man (the precursor) outrageously more alive than himself.” The great poetic ambition, which only the strongest poets achieve, is to appear self-begotten not only free of the father but, as Bloom demonstrates beautifully in the case of Milton (who is Bloom’s own strong poet par excellence), the father’s father. This final “transumptive” act of poetic majesty Bloom calls metalepsis: “Milton does what Bacon hoped to do; Milton and Galileo become ancients, and Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Dante, Tasso, Spenser become belated moderns.”

The fixed symbolic vocabulary of the algorithm is one of the points where misreading wants to overwrite fixity. Meanwhile back on the Network, there’s a sense in which Phil Windley’s concept of a purpose-centric web dares to ignore the local laws and advocates simply rewriting/overwriting the fixed symbolic vocabulary to serve another purpose. There’s a sense in which we can view this as another instance of text, interpretation and performance. The revolutionary idea of the Action Card is that my rule set trumps yours.


To return to the moment that started this train of thought, let’s look at Byrne’s Arboreum drawings as a performance text. It seems as though the fixed symbolic vocabulary becomes slippery when it moves from linear typography to a map or model. The symbolic moves from symbol to symbol. The adjectives finite, discrete, governed, fixed, and  precise all seem to lose purchase. And yet if we look at the Wooster Group’s rigorous performances, we could apply all of those adjectives along a different dimension.

These two relationships to the text stand across from each other as mirror images.  As the algorithm blends with desire and takes flight into the real time flow of the Network, our sense of logic may sometimes take on the guise of the logic of sense, and it will have to learn to keep its cool as it makes the occasional trip through the looking glass.

The Disposition of the Information Cloud


This post probably is what it contemplates. I’ve been thinking about clouds, not as in utility computing, but rather as a metaphor. The cloud is a figure of speech that has worked its way into conversations and trains of thought with increasing frequency. As I attempt to draw a circle around it, the boundaries that I posit seem solid enough. But then, with the flow of time, they start to shift, and then, form into completely different shapes.


For a long time I’ve visualized the tweets emitted from the people I follow on Twitter as a cloud. While the interface represents them as a single-file stream, I see them as emerging simultaneously into a cloud of information. I see them as a cloud because I don’t know in advance what value they have. I don’t know where the edges are, the shapes that emerge are temporary, they must be grasped in the moment. One aspect of the information overload problem is the moment when I sense that the cloud is filled with important information, but I can’t seem to get my hands on it. Other times I can look at the cloud and see that there’s nothing there.


Talking with Phil Windley over dinner at the recent IIW, we began discussing the clouds of information that form around transactions. In the corporate world this is called business intelligence. Systems are built and deployed to capture the data that feeds the cloud of information around management actions. Phil’s work with Action Cards can be viewed as agents/apps that monitor the cloud around a person’s browsing activity (augmented reality) and trigger specific actions when certain conditions are present. Craig Burton might call that changing cloud of information the context. The hard boundaries among web sites at the name/security space level have never been able to contain the information cloud. It travels with the user, unimpeded, on the other side of the glass.


There’s a book that was written in the 14th century by an anonymous cleric called The Cloud of Unknowing. Perhaps it’s more the poetry of the title, than the actual text that has stuck with me. Wikipedia condenses its teachings as follows:

“And so I urge you, go after experience rather than knowledge. On account of pride, knowledge may often deceive you, but this gentle, loving affection will not deceive you. Knowledge tends to breed conceit, but love builds. Knowledge is full of labor, but love, full of rest.”

Even at this early moment, there’s a clear divide between—and subtle understanding of—the human gesture and the schemas of knowledge/information.

Listening to a recording of a conversation between Stephen B. Johnson and Brian Eno at the Institute for Contemporary Arts, the discussion moves to the work of Cornelius Cardew and Paragraph 7 of his work called The Great Learning. Here are some of the instructions for the work:

Paragraph 7, the final paragraph in terms of score order (but with a completion date of 8 April 1969), consists of twenty-four lines which must be sung for the length of a breath a given number of times. Each performer works at his or her own speed through the material in a ‘network’ effect noted by Michael Nyman. This network effect has caught the attention of some writers outside of the immediate British experimental group (for instance, Linda Dusman and Joseph Rukshan Fonseka) more than the rest of The Great Learning.

Eno describes how the sound and shape of the work changes as each performer starts from a self-selected note and when a line is completed, switches to a note they can hear. The piece moves from a dissonant cloud of sound, to a complex chord, to a less complex chord.

Something about this form of sociological composition with a very simple rule set ties directly to the information overload problem in the micromessaging sphere.

Marshall McLuhan put it this way:

Faced with information overload, we have no alternative but pattern-recognition.

This sense of the cloud emerges when the number of things in front of us are too many to count. The things vaporize and form clouds. Here we move up the stack and relate to patterns instead of individual things. The user interface presents us with large set of streams, sequenced items– but the patterns emerge from the overall cloud of information not from the columns of streams flowing through our screens.

But even before we begin to see patterns, we intuit the disposition of the cloud. We sense its energy, speed and direction; its density, the quality of its make up. We’re all meteorologists of the information environment. And while it may be quite difficult to predict whether it’s going to rain or not, you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. These clouds of information are forming around every transaction in our lives. But having the data and knowing what to do with it are two separate things. We seem to be at the edge, crossing a boundary line— our hands grasp for clouds, and for the first time, seem to have a hold of something…


The Twittering Machine: A Network of Accelerants & Silences


In 1922, the Artist Paul Klee completed a work entitled Die Zwitscher-Maschine, which has been translated into English as The Twittering Machine. The work is part of the Museum of Modern Art’s collection. The catalog description delves beneath the surface interpretation of a machine for making pleasant bird sounds:

Upon closer inspection, however, an uneasy sensation of looming menace begins to manifest itself. Composed of a wiry, nervous line, these creatures bear a resemblance to birds only in their beaks and feathered silhouettes; they appear closer to deformations of nature. The hand crank conjures up the idea that this “machine” is a music box, where the birds function as bait to lure victims to the pit over which the machine hovers. We can imagine the fiendish cacophony made by the shrieking birds, their legs drawn thin and taut as they strain against the machine to which they are fused.

I’d like to take a moment to delve beneath the surface of the machinery that makes up the micro-messaging ecosystem. The micro-messaging service Twitter approaches a kind of frictionless channel for messaging. Everything about it seems to be built for growth and speed. After the substantial speed bump of signing up and orienting yourself in the system, both listening for, and creating messages are very simple. Select the other people (and pseudo-people) you’d like to follow, type fewer than 140 characters of hypertext into a text field and press update.

It’s been noted many times that the follow social structure – the directed social graph – allows for the rapid expansion of social linking. A participant is able to follow many others without the requirement of reciprocity. I follow you, you don’t have to follow me. And the retweet has emerged as a method of transmitting messages across multiple overlapping social graphs. Hash tags have become a conventional method of indicating a message tied to a particular event. All of these tools are dedicated to the acceleration of the growth of the Twitter network. Twitter’s trending topics and search functionality allow users to find high-velocity memes as they begin to achieve broad circulation through the social mesh.

Examples of the benefits of the speed of the Twitter network abound – news about the earthquake in China, the plane landing on the Hudson River, reports on wild fires in Southern California, etc. The news media, feeling somewhat usurped here, has also brought the negative aspects of this lack of friction in the system. Usually this kind of story is meant to point to the filtering role of their own editorial facility. The New York Times put a Twitter contretemps involving Stephen Fry in the first section of their newspaper.

…that little tweet set off a frenzy of vitriolic attacks and counterattacks on Twitter, drawing an untold number of people into an increasingly charged debate and thrusting brumplum — in reality a man from Birmingham, England, named Richard — unhappily into the public’s angry glare. It was an example once again of the extraordinary power of Twitter to distribute information and to sway the opinions of vast groups of people in tiny amounts of time.

While the frictionless micro-messaging environment can accelerate important, or amusing, messages (news, stories, jokes, musings), it can also assemble and ignite an angry mob at lightning speed. And if we look at the tool set we’re offered, everything is oriented toward accelerating people, memes and the growth of the Twitter network. In this frame, value is equated with high velocity and numbers of retweets, likes, mentions, @replies, followers and now, list memberships. We’re looking for what, or who, is going viral.

But if we examine the often banal items that achieve virality, we have to question the value = virality equation. Often the high numbers are a result of lowest-common denominator dynamics, it’s not the cream rising to the top. There are certain kinds of viral items that we’d prefer to be vaccinated against. We’d like a micro-messaging Center for Disease Control warning us about time-wasting viral memes spreading through the Network. Where are the tools to retard the spread of a meme? Where’s the don’t like, or the visible gesture of hiding something from your messaging stream. It’s as though we’ve put a poll in the field that only asks for a positive response and excludes all negative reaction. Feedback loops require both positive and negative inputs.

Feedback is a mechanism, process or signal that is looped back to control a system within itself. Such a loop is called a feedback loop. Intuitively many systems have an obvious input and output; feeding back part of the output so as to increase the input is positive feedback; feeding back part of the output in such a way as to partially oppose the input is negative feedback.

Negative feedback helps to maintain stability in a system in spite of external changes. It is related to homeostasis. For example, in a population of foxes (predators) and rabbits (prey), an increase in the number of foxes will cause a reduction in the number of rabbits; the smaller rabbit population will sustain fewer foxes, and the fox population will fall back. In an electronic amplifier feeding back a negative copy of the output to the input will tend to cancel distortion, making the output a more accurate replica of the input signal.

Positive feedback amplifies possibilities of divergences (evolution, change of goals); it is the condition to change, evolution, growth; it gives the system the ability to access new points of equilibrium.

One method of judging the relative merit of the memes circulating through the stream is to pay close attention to the silences, the negative gestures. While the wisdom of crowds may have crowned an item the real-time meme of the moment, there’s a simple way to filter for value. Using a small portfolio (lists, if you will) of people who’s opinion you respect – look to see if they remain silent on a topic. In the task of discovering value, this kind of silence is golden.

In the early stages of growth, accelerants are essential. As a Network matures, unless it develops a deeper tool set, it simply becomes a twittering machine. The value it appears to create is illusory, and so the commons begins its descent to knee-jerk reactions to the high numbers generated by the lowest common denominator. Perhaps the inevitable result is that overlapping publics contract and the social space becomes a much more private circulatory system. The crucible of dispute, debate and dialogue that produces real value may only emerge away from the public network of accelerants where the social contract allows such differences (both positive and negative feedback). One of the better statements of this kind of contract was for the Nettime mailing list:

Nettime was vector for experimenting with net critique that would confront it with the possibility of inventing new forms of discourse and dialogue in a new medium. Consensus is not the goal. There’s no governing fantasy according to which the differences within this ‘group’ will on some ever-deferred day be resolved. the differences are Nettime; they might be dialectical, implying each other, or they might be differential, making absolutely no reference whatsoever to each others’ terms. Net critique, if understood as a shared practice in and against a never pre-defined techno-local environment, contains many modes of possible participation.

In navigating the electrical storms and fires of the micro-messaging Network, we’d do well to have some tools in our kit in addition to that can of gasoline.


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