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The Time of Pattern Recognition

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When is it that the pattern is recognized? Was it at that first moment, the moment when the first element emerged from future possibility into present possibility? How might I recognize this element all on its own—without the links that make it part of the larger pattern?

Perhaps it’s the pattern that must first make its impression, such that the newly appearing element has a sensible place to stand. Having the pattern in mind, I wait for the last element to find its place and complete the pattern in its wholeness.

But having seen a pattern only once, I can’t yet say that it’s a pattern. It’s only having seen the pattern at least a second time, that I can look back in retrospect and say, this first instance was the earliest example of the pattern. That’s where it all started.

If we’re looking for the moment the pattern—as pattern, emerges, it’s never with its first appearance, but at a minimum with its second. A third appearance might supply some needed confirmation, a signal that it’s really a pattern and not merely a set of twins.

The time of pattern recognition seems to be backward looking, out toward the horizon of memory. These floating historical elements are gathered up and crystalized into a pattern, a new object for the present moment. And, of course, the pattern itself may become a part of another pattern, and so on.

Once we have the pattern in hand, can we project a future time of patterns? Could a single new event trigger the recognition of a pattern? To create certainty, the event would have to travel with an attached message that said, “save me, I’m always part of this pattern you’re interested in. I have a purpose (telos) that may not be apparent by just looking at me, but this message you’re reading vouches for my higher purpose. I am a part of a significant pattern. Recognize me.” What do we do to the thing when we pre-pattern its existence? In some ways, isn’t this the only way we can possibly recognize anything? A thing that wasn’t part of a pre-existing pattern might simply appear as noise to us.

Rather than demanding certainty, we might assign probabilities. A newly arrived element might have a calculated probability that it belongs to a certain pattern. We might provisionally treat it as though it does, until sufficient evidence accumulates. When the confirming evidence presents itself, we bring out the rubber stamp and certify that it’s a member of some particular pattern. Or perhaps we determine that it’s actually a member of a different pattern, or no recognizable pattern, and so we treat it accordingly.

As we think of the time of the pattern, we also might consider the time of the element. Is the element, once lodged firmly into a pattern, permanently defined by the pattern? Does the pattern exhaust all of the possibility of the element? Could the element change in such a way that it was no longer part of a particular pattern that had claimed it? Is a pattern a fixed constellation, or are the elements brimming with energy and possibility? Could they, at any moment, break off and find another pattern of which to be a part? Could the pattern itself suddenly change its requirements, excluding some heretofore members in good standing, and including others formerly considered outsiders?

We’ve been thinking of patterns as something a human recognizes in the stream of events surrounding it. What happens when the work of recognition is displaced to a machine built to recognize patterns and then take certain actions upon their identification? I might dream up a list of patterns and stuff them in the top of the machine, and then tell the machine very specifically what I’d like to have happen each time a pattern is recognized. The machine automatically churns through large quantities of material and digs up elements that fit into one of the specified patterns.

Imagine that we tell the machine to simply observe the flow of events around us and to detect emergent patterns. In this example, the machine isn’t working with patterns we consciously select, but instead with patterns we actually enact. Certainly this would provide us with a more real set of patterns, and it would save us the trouble of dreaming up patterns and feeding them into the machine. The patterns and their recognition would be entirely automated. This would allow anyone owning such a machine to simply turn it on and let the benefits of automatic pattern recognition accumulate over time.

One can image additional modules for the machine. There may be patterns I enact that I have no awareness of. Some of these patterns may be having a negative effect on my overall well being. A special sub-system that identified these patterns and integrated them back into my conscious awareness might be called psychiatric plugin. Or perhaps, I’m enacting a pattern that could be used to identify me as a target for certain kinds of advertising offers. The cost of the machine could be subsidized by auctioning these pattern matches to the highest bidder. There might be a module that pays me when I enact a certain set of patterns. Of course, the machine couldn’t reveal the substance of the patterns to me as this might encourage me to pretend to enact rather than really enact. We might call this a Skinner-box module.

If there’s an economics to information flow, it’s based on the production and consumption of patterns of bits. It might not even matter what the pattern consists of, if the cost of the transaction wrapper is sufficiently small, any pattern can serve as an economic vehicle. And once this has occurred, the value of the pattern is separated from its economy. All patterns, regardless of value, can have an economy in this model.

Philip Roth, writing some time ago about the state of literature behind the Iron Curtain, noted that when nothing is allowed, everything becomes important. And conversely, when everything is allowed, nothing is important. Having established that you can buy or sell anything, we find ourselves standing around without a measuring stick, asking whether it’s any good or not.

The Politics of the Message and the File

ikoni

If you strip away all of the surface distractions and zoom in on the computing environment using your microscopic vision, you see bits moving back and forth across a wire. If you zoom back out to the macro level, you can see Hewlett Packard and Google making radical changes in strategy and multi-billion dollar bets on how the preponderance of those bits will travel.

Now step into the time machine and move back a few years. The personal computer has just become the business computer. Most of the bits are written and retrieved from local hard drives in the form of files. Files are moved via sneaker-net. Move forward a few years and files are moved over local networks and individual computers are linked together within a single location. Shared files find their way to file servers and now allow multiple users to access and add work product to these common-use files.

Concurrently, the message finds an electronic home in email. Initially email messages can only be transmitted within specific platforms. You need to be on the same network as the people you want to communicate with. Fast forward a few years and email is sent with a common protocol and the networks become a network of networks. Now you only need to know the name of the endpoint to send a message to anyone.

The growth vector of the file’s environment is the size of the hard disk. Larger hard disks in the computing device and on the local network define capacity. As time passes and more files accumulate, they require even more disk space. As computing power increases, file sizes increase as well. As more and more things are digitized, more kinds of things are stored on hard drives in digital form.

The personal computer connects to a local area network, a wide area network and a global network to create a new entity called the Network. Both message traffic and file creation are initiated through the personal computer and start to be pointed at the Network. As the speed of the Network increases, the length of the wire that file bits can workably traverse becomes global in nature. It’s at this point that the message and the file begin to converge. The functionality of the personal computer as a file processing machine begins to be sucked down the wire and reconstituted into the virtual space of the Network. Both the file and computing processes are remote controlled through a set of messages sent back and forth across the wires.

The technology dynasties that were built up around these different ways of treating bits have large investments in both the technical infrastructure and mental models of either files or messages. The roots of these patterns go deep into the corporate structures of these organizations. With the recent moves by HP and Google, we can see the can see that the message and messaging network infrastructure has finally tipped the balance away from the file. The file has become another kind of message for a signaling device pointed at a cloud messaging network. Google attempts to reach across from the cloud to gain a foothold on the device side. HP recognizes that rather than going from personal computer to signaling device, the move from personal computer to custom central computing platforms is a better fit.

It’s worth noting that the message infrastructure has backed off of its most radical formulation and returned to the competing large network platform environment. In the email messaging environment there was an impetus and energy to connect the disparate systems and endpoints so that any two endpoints could connect. The connections between the new era large messaging platforms are purely one-way, instead of the more common “read-only” capability, this is a “write-only” hook up. One has a sense of retreating from a democratic network back to a feudal system of large kingdoms.

There’s a maxim in investing that you should buy at the moment of maximum pessimism. The file, it seems, is on the ropes. The message, messaging networks and signaling devices seem to be firmly in control of the corporate agenda. That’s why it’s interesting that Apple, with its iCloud initiative, is investing in redefining the user’s relationship with the file. The file becomes non-local, it doesn’t travel across the wire, it’s simply wherever it’s needed. Or, at least, it appears that way. All the mechanics of syncing, versioning, reading and writing have been removed from the workflow. The creation device, the file and the file network may be perfectly ripe for rejuvenation as our obsession with the message reaches its peak.

Revisiting @cshirky : Overload and Filter Failure

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Clay Shirky may have done us a disservice when, looking at the torrent of information published to the Network, he turned the problem upside down and said it’s not information overload, it’s filter failure. His comment was a response to the notion that the solution to information overload is to use professional editors to filter out items of inferior quality before they are inscribed into the Network. This approach would be consistent with the historical practices of the publishing industry; and theoretically would result in fewer items tumbling into the bin of our cognitive load. Traditional models of publication are a statement about the quality and value of a work. If everything is always published in real time—every gesture, tick and passing fancy— publication is no longer a measure of quality, but merely a recognition of the act of inscription on the surface of the Network.

The purpose of the filter is to rummage through the “everything” that has been published—and is continuously published in real time—and come up with an appropriately-sized load. That is, something less than an overload, and certainly not an under-load, but rather a load that feels just right. Shirky inaugurated the era of “filter failure” in September of 2008; in the subsequent years the volume of items published to the Network has accelerated exponentially. However, we don’t seem to have made much headway with the “filter” problem.

We have a sense of what a “filter” looks like when it works as a gatekeeper standing between all that is written and what is eventually published. The editor and publisher make judgements based on commercial prospects, artistic merit, a writer’s track record, et cetera; and then select which pieces of writing will pass through the publication process. A “filter failure” in this context is a publication event that doesn’t find an audience willing to support or engage with it.

What does a “filter” look like when everything has already been published? Isn’t the horse already out of the barn? Early in Twitter’s existence, they placed a configurable filter on the publishing nozzle of the service. A user could select a set of keywords, the filter checked through all the tweets in real-time, and then it would spray a filtered set of tweets into the regular set of subscriptions. As the volume, velocity and user-base increased, it was technically unsustainable on a real-time basis. Twitter search now consists of keyword filtering of a smaller set after the fact. A number of services have rented Twitter’s firehose of messages in an effort to affix real-time filters over the publication nozzle. None have emerged with a solution to put an end to the era of “filter failure.”

From the perspective of editorial process, affixing a filter to the real-time publication nozzle is consistent with previous editing processes. The editor/user selects keywords that narrow the field of output prior to the publication of a real-time stream. The filter that Shirky proposed operates after the fact, everything has always already been published and this filter sifts through it all and scoops up only the good stuff. Wheat is separated from chaff. In this case the timing of the filter is less important than the quality and scope of its mesh. The filter should construct a value equivalent to, or greater than, that of a pre-filtered output, by assembling interesting bits and pieces it finds laying around. Because it’s less concerned with the now of real-time, Shirky’s filter can include elements from different periods of time based on their relevance, importance and overall quality.

In some recent attempts to crack the “filter” code, the word ‘curator’ is substituted for ‘editor’ and the blend of the publication is expanded to include both domestic and foreign products. Most traditional publications are reconstituting themselves along these lines. Another approach is to draw a circle around a set of curators and writers to create a tele-publication. To maintain and grow its value, the portfolio must be actively managed, occasionally rebalanced and look for opportunities in the event stream. (Global tactical asset allocation mutual funds are often managed in this fashion.)

A filter could be constructed correctly, be technically sustainable at scale, and still be a failure. If the mesh of the filter is configured incorrectly, its output may be the correct “load” size, but its contents of inferior quality. The mechanics of filtering are only half of the equation. What should the filter filter, and who decides what that is? Some say we don’t want an editor to serve as a gatekeeper, we prefer an emergent (another word for average) publication of crowd-sourced filtering. The odd thing about a spontaneously generated crowd-constructed publication is that it usually feels like you’ve already read it. The thing about what everybody knows is that everybody already knows it.

Assuming we could produce a technically-sound filter, we would need to configure its mesh. It’s possible one could go shopping for a mesh. A filter’s mesh could be an external product selected to produce a particular kind of output. Our choices range from the hand-crafted to the automated mesh. Techmeme is a hybrid of algorithmic and hand-crafted output. Google News has recently added a hand-crafted element to their largely algorithmic output. In a sense, this isn’t very different from the way an ink-on-paper magazine works.

One of the dangers of going shopping for a mesh is that one can easily end up in an echo chamber. By selecting only agreeable elements, one’s own bias seems to be confirmed by external sources. When you mix in hard-core ideology, a strange reversal takes place. As William Burroughs once said, “you don’t sell heroin to people; you sell people to heroin.” What at first appears to be looking in a mirror and becoming more and more beautiful, is really a process of the mirror surrounding and consuming you, until you become a part of its reflection. The external ideology has hollowed you out and takes up residence in the void.

If the era of filter failure were to end, would we have filters that were an uncanny match to our thoughts and desires? Would the filter take into account our conscious and unconscious selves? Would it know what to us is a set of unknown knowns? Would we be embarrassed when the filter mixed in objects of desire of which we dare not speak? Is it merely a matter of getting in tune with our true desires and affinities? Or should the mesh of the filter bring me more than I contain? How far do we need to take this?

After all, how perfect does a filter need to be before we can consider it a success? Perhaps all that has to happen is for the feeling of being overwhelmed to go away. Maybe that just happens with time and exposure. Instead of waiting for a future paradise where filters don’t fail and our minds are constantly blown by how perfectly tuned and relevant every single thing we encounter is; perhaps we should acknowledge that the future will be a lot like the present. Sturgeon’s law will still hold and 90% of everything will still be crap, spammers will still manage to show us advertisements we don’t want to see, and sometimes we’ll still feel overwhelmed by life.

The more we search for a fine-grained solution to filter failure, the stranger the “I” for whom the filter must not fail becomes.

At first the big flood of information seems to be fascinating. It has all the formal qualities of something that should demand our attention. It’s only after we’ve sat patiently and listened to it for a while that we realize how boring it can be. Boredom with the torrent of information may be the first step toward forgiving filters their failures.

“To approach the Other in conversation is to welcome his expression, in which at each instant he overflows the idea a thought would carry away from it. It is therefore to receive from the Other beyond the capacity of the I, which means exactly: to have the idea of infinity. But this also means: to be taught. The relation with the Other, or Conversation, is a non-allergic relation, an ethical relation; but inasmuch as it is welcomed this conversation is a teaching. Teaching is not reducible to maieutics; it comes from the exterior and brings me more than I contain. In its non-violent transitivity the very epiphany of the face is produced.”

— Emmanuel Levinas (Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority)

Identity is Written by the Victors

We think of the phrase “history is written by the victors” as being for the most part historical. When we look back at those other people whose history was written for them, we mourn the injustice of it all. Those whose stories were whispered in the shadows, at the margins of the dominant society, barely register as people at all. We only learn these stories well after the fact. We reconstruct them as we would a dinosaur from a footprint recovered from an archeological dig.

When I think of @IdentityWoman’s dispute with Google and their Google+ platform, I can’t help but notice that identity too, is written by the victors. In the battle for the Network, Google can only be considered one of the victors. On their platform, they can set the rules for what counts as a who. We obscure the hard edges of the platform by calling it a cloud, but it’s a centralized system with a set of hard and fast rules.

The “real” name is the identifier that can be bound to the flesh and blood of a human. It’s the “I” who is responsible for the debts and transactions initiated by the soul that is embodied as a particular being. The “consumer” is another way of describing this “I.” But is the “I” who vouches for the reality of a name, the “I” who then narrates the life of the “I” who lives that life? Is that “I” only the “I” who buys and spends? While the system can try to insist that the “I” use a “real” name, I can only hear the voice of Arthur Rimbaud saying “I is another…”

Extract from the Voyant Letter
Arthur Rimbaud
1871

‘Romanticism has never been properly judged. Who could judge it? The Critics! The Romantics! Who prove so clearly that the singer is so seldom the work, that’s to say the idea sung and intended by the singer.

For I is another. If the brass wakes the trumpet, it’s not its fault. That’s obvious to me: I witness the unfolding of my own thought: I watch it, I hear it: I make a stroke with the bow: the symphony begins in the depths, or springs with a bound onto the stage.

If the old imbeciles hadn’t discovered only the false significance of Self, we wouldn’t have to now sweep away those millions of skeletons which have been piling up the products of their one-eyed intellect since time immemorial, and claiming themselves to be their authors!

In Greece, as I say, verse and lyre took rhythm from Action. Afterwards, music and rhyme are a game, a pastime. The study of the past charms the curious: many of them delight in reviving these antiquities: – that’s up to them. The universal intelligence has always thrown out its ideas naturally: men gathered a part of these fruits of the mind: they acted them out, they wrote books by means of them: so it progressed, men not working on themselves, either not being awake, or not yet in the fullness of the great dream. Civil-servants – writers: author; creator, poet: that man has never existed!

The first study for the man that wants to be a poet is true complete knowledge of himself: he looks for his soul; examines it, tests it, learns it. As soon as he knows it, he must develop it! That seems simple: a natural development takes place in every brain: so many egoists proclaim themselves authors: there are plenty of others who attribute their intellectual progress to themselves! – But the soul must be made monstrous: after the fashion of the comprachicos, yes! Imagine a man planting and cultivating warts on his face.

I say one must be a seer (voyant), make oneself a seer.

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