Archive for May, 2013

« Previous Entries

The Ill-Equipped: Blending Out of the Background


“Technology is at its best when it gets out of the way. Good technology blends in.” Most of the top technology firms take these ideas as their credo. This is the way Apple talked about the iPad, and the way Google now talks about their augmented reality appliance, Google Glass. The fact that the highest aim of technological devices is to get out of the way is a clue to how broken technological interfaces and devices have been.

Take Heidegger’s favorite example of the hammer. The hammer blends in, it gets out of the way when we are successfully hammering in a nail. The hammer itself, as a tool, blends into the background of the hammering activity. It’s only when the hammer breaks that it juts back into our world of hammering with its brute physicality as a “hammer.”

Another example used by Heidegger is wearing corrective lenses in the form of glasses. While they appear to be the closest thing, literally resting on your nose — while they are in use, they are the farthest thing from us. They exist in another world entirely.

Google Glass takes an interesting path to the background. The example of the hammer shows us that any tool, whether it contains onboard network-connected computer processing or not, can become a part of the background. Heidegger’s discussion of eyewear tells us something about what is near or far in the context of the person engaged in a project in the midst of the world. Google Glass moves to the background by attempting to move into, or behind, our eyes. Like the example of eyewear, the eye itself is part of the background when it is merely seeing. This technology gets out of the way by positioning itself outside our field of vision and then superimposing augmentation layers on it.


Google’s augmented reality appliance attempts to erase its material presence. Its only trace is the data it projects onto the world. In this sense, it is an metaphysical idealist par excellence. Its camera claims to record the world from a unique subjective perspective. From outside of the world, as it were. Do you see what I see? Well, now you can. Click here.

Of course, while the position of Google’s Glass gets it out of the user’s way, it puts itself directly in everyone else’s way. “Glass” breaks your face for me. It’s no longer operating as a face, now it’s a camera and potentially it’s projecting augmented reality data on or over me. This is the problem with misunderstanding how backgrounds work. Being physically “out of the way” is not the same thing as blending into a background.

Technology yearns to recede into the background just at the moment when the background itself is broken. Global warming and other forms of pollution have resulted in the geological era known as the anthropocene. The combined force of human activity is now part of what we used to call the background. Extreme weather and other strange events jut out of the background and disrupt the status quo of our everyday world. What they’re telling us is that our everyday world has ended. The background is permanently broken. The narrator no longer inscribes his story on the backdrop (augmented reality); it’s the backdrop that inscribes its narrative onto the narrator. These strange weather events are an augmentation of reality from reality’s point of view.

Rather than tools that attempt to blend with background, perhaps we need tools that are partially broken. Tools that are a little weird and occasionally provide unexpected results. Tools that remind us of where they came from and the labor conditions under which they were produced. Tools that start a conversation from the tool-side of the divide. In his letters from the 1940s and 50s, Samuel Beckett writes about his decision to write in French rather than English. He points to:

“le besoin d’être mal armé” (“the need to be ill-equipped”)

Writing in English was starting to “knot him up”, it was a language he knew too well. It was this ill-equipped writer that would one day write “Ill Seen, Ill Said“. In addition to the necessity of using broken tools, Beckett also points another writer with his phrase: Stephane Mallarme. Mallarme was one of the first poets to bring the background into the body of the poem. In his poem “A Throw of the Dice will Never Abolish Chance” the white space, the background of the text becomes part of the work. When philosopher Tim Morton talks about “environmental or ecological philosophy” he’s trying to get at just this. It’s not a philosophy that takes the environment or ecology as its topic, but rather a thinking that’s ill-equipped, a little broken, a little twisted, where shards of the background come jutting through.

Google’s Glass is signalling to us about backgrounds and our place in them. It’s a message we can only hear in the moments before we raise the appliance and attach it to our face.


Stigmata: Like a Wound in the Ice


A simile is a kind of metaphor. Rather than saying this noun “is” that noun, we say it is “like” that noun. We insert a little distance between the two things. The bleeding glacier in Antarctica is like a wound in the ice.

Our first instinct in viewing the photograph is to ask what it “really” is. That’s not really blood, what is it? I mean scientifically.

Taylor Glacier in Antarctica’s McMurdo Dry Valley, in 1911, is in fact the run-off from a microbe-filled lake deep beneath the surface of the glacier. The run-off seeps out through a fissure in the glacier, and it is red not because the poor microbes are bleeding, but because it comes from a very iron-rich environment.

The power of the image is defused in its scientific explanation. It’s iron-rich microbe run-off. That’s not blood. The ice isn’t wounded; it isn’t bleeding.

Blood is a bodily fluid in animals that delivers necessary substances such as nutrients and oxygen to the cells and transports metabolic waste products away from those same cells.

The image is arresting, it’s like the ice is bleeding. Even in this remote place at the bottom of the world, the earth has suffered a wound and bleeds into the ocean. What does it mean that the earth shows the signs of a stigmata? Why does the earth bleed from this glacier of ice? Does the earth grimace in pain?

How would we view this image differently if it was created by the artist Andy Goldsworthy? Is it only through the medium of an artist’s work that it can be considered and read as a work of art? Today we say that an artist is a genius. “Genius or Genii” was once what we called the attendant spirit of a place. Imagine that this mass of ice, flow of microbes and change in temperature joined forces to create a work of art — an image that is meant to resonate and find a permanent home in your mind’s eye.

Cacophony: You May Already be a Member!


The best minds of my generation have been destroyed by the madness of contriving ways to get people to click on ads, conforming to a conceptual framework of disruption in which ruptures take the form of optimizing commercial capitalism. As the hot air of “technology” and “social” fill up the bubble once more, food for Cacophony fills the streets, the airways and the wires of the Network. The time is ripe for more weird fun from The Cacophony Society.

The Cacophony Society is a randomly gathered network of free spirits united in the pursuit of experiences beyond the pale of mainstream society. We are the punctuation at the end of hypothetical sentences, words in the prose of technological satire, grammarians of absurdist syntax and our numbers are prominent in the flat edge of a curve. You may already be a member!

A common criticism of the Occupy Movement has been that its anarchist structure means it will have little influence beyond the current moment. The counter-example is the San Francisco Cacophony Society (formerly The Suicide Club) which spawned and influenced the Billboard Liberation Front, Burning Man, Fight Club, Ad Busters and Santa Con. Culture jamming continues to be a powerful force in countering the technological scientism of Silicon Valley.

Non Event
Wednesday Dec. 9th all day.

Dress like you always do. Do what you normally do.
Object of the event: See if you can pick out the other participants. This was a really big event last year. Let’s see if we can do it again!

Sponsored by: The Bureau of Objective Reality

Last Gasp of San Francisco has published “Tales of the San Francisco Cacophony Society.” This new instruction manual and historical document is cornucopia of cacophony and should prove to be an inspiration to a new generation about to be chained to the “promise” of Google Glass.

Frankenstein’s Workshop
Saturday, Sept. 5 8:00 p.m.
Meet: At the N.E. corner of Judah and 7th Ave.
Bring: Recently or about-to-be deceased animal bodies or parts (please no “roadkill”)
Wear: Something you won’t mind getting indelible stains on

Dr. X and The Other One


For the scholars of Cacophony, and the future generation of pranksters, the holy historical documents (Rough Draft) and other ephemera are being housed in the virtual halls of the Cacophony Society Section of the Internet Archive. The youth of the world have an indispensable new resource in their pursuit of a renaissance of cacophony.

A Dunbar Number for Objects


The objects that accumulate around us remain silent and so eventually sink into the background. Once part of the background they are present but completely disappeared. Like fish in water, we swim in this sea of objects. We maintain some kind of interactive relationship with a set of these consumer objects, but due to our physical finitude we can only keep a small number of balls in the air.

The Internet of things is coming upon us faster than anyone could have imagined. From the large scale “Brilliant Machines” industrial project of General Electric to the personal clouds of SquareTags imagined by Phil Windley and others. It was in Bruce Sterling’s book called “Shaping Things” that I was first introduced to the concept. The little book seemed to call out to me from the shelves of the bookstore at the Cooper-Hewitt.

Things call to us in different ways. The Triangle Shirtwaste Factory fire called out to a generation about the role of labor conditions in the very clothing on their backs. The stitching told a story about conditions under which the stitching itself occurred. Instead of fading into the background, the threads become Brechtian actors employing the verfremdungseffekt.

The term Verfremdungseffekt is rooted in the Russian Formalist notion of the device of making strange (Russian: прием остранения priyom ostraneniya), which literary critic Viktor Shklovsky claims is the essence of all art. Lemon and Reis’s 1965 English translation of Shklovsky’s 1917 coinage as “defamiliarization”, combined with John Willett’s 1964 translation of Brecht’s 1935 coinage as “alienation effect”—and the canonization of both translations in Anglophone literary theory in the decades since—has served to obscure the close connections between the two terms. Not only is the root of both terms “strange” (stran- in Russian, fremd in German), but both terms are unusual in their respective languages: ostranenie is a neologism in Russian, while Verfremdung is a resuscitation of a long-obsolete term in German. In addition, according to some accounts Shklovsky’s Russian friend playwright Sergei Tretyakov taught Brecht Shklovsky’s term during Brecht’s visit to Moscow in the spring of 1935. For this reason, many scholars have recently taken to using estrangement to translate both terms: “the estrangement device” in Shklovsky, “the estrangement effect” in Brecht.

For this generation, the tragic factory collapse in Bangladesh has radically changed the clothing hanging in our closets and folded in our chest of drawers. The stitching and the labels in these clothes now call out, they make themselves strange and unfamiliar. A piece of the background pricks our attention and wants to have a conversation. “Let me tell you about myself. I was born in Bangladesh in a factory like the one you read about the other day on your iPad.”


In the Internet of things, the number of things that could be transmitting data to a central store is limited only by practicality. In other words, it’s practically unlimited. Although, as Lisa Gitelman reminds us “Raw Data is an Oxymoron.” Data is a form of rhetoric based on exclusion. Deciding what counts as data is always already a form of cooking. Drawing conclusions from big data is not making an assessment of big pile of raw, natural artifacts. Data is always pre-cooked and can benefit from an analysis of our counter-transference toward it. And while the Internet of things seems to be mostly on the side of objects helping to manufacture themselves more efficiently, there’s another side to the conversation aspect of the objects surrounding us.


Not too long ago it was our food that was calling out to us. “Ask me where I’m from. Let me tell you about how I was grown.” We’ve been through the whole cycle by now. At first we could hear the words “natural” and “organic” and know something about origins. Today highly-processed foods sport the labels natural and organic. A longer dialogue than can be printed on a container is called for. Now our clothes need to explain themselves. We need to be able to ask them about where they were stitched up, and they need to be able to tell us.

In Bruce Sterling’s “The Last Viridian Note” he makes the case for deaccessioning one’s collection. If we are all curators, defining ourselves by exhibiting our taste as consumers — what are we saying about ourselves? And in this era of the Internet of things, what will the things themselves be saying about us behind our backs?

In earlier, less technically advanced eras, this approach would have been far-fetched. Material goods were inherently difficult to produce, find, and ship. They were rare and precious. They were closely associated with social prestige. Without important material signifiers such as wedding china, family silver, portraits, a coach-house, a trousseau and so forth, you were advertising your lack of substance to your neighbors. If you failed to surround yourself with a thick material barrier, you were inviting social abuse and possible police suspicion. So it made pragmatic sense to cling to heirlooms, renew all major purchases promptly, and visibly keep up with the Joneses.

That era is dying. It’s not only dying, but the assumptions behind that form of material culture are very dangerous. These objects can no longer protect you from want, from humiliation – in fact they are causes of humiliation, as anyone with a McMansion crammed with Chinese-made goods and an unsellable SUV has now learned at great cost.

Furthermore, many of these objects can damage you personally. The hours you waste stumbling over your piled debris, picking, washing, storing, re-storing, those are hours and spaces that you will never get back in a mortal lifetime. Basically, you have to curate these goods: heat them, cool them, protect them from humidity and vermin. Every moment you devote to them is lost to your children, your friends, your society, yourself.

It’s not bad to own fine things that you like. What you need are things that you GENUINELY like. Things that you cherish, that enhance your existence in the world. The rest is dross.

In the sphere of social networks, we talk about the Dunbar number. While electronic computerized networks theoretically allow people to connect with tens of thousands of other people, stable social relationships, according to Robin Dunbar, are limited to a much smaller number.

Dunbar’s number is a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. These are relationships in which an individual knows who each person is, and how each person relates to every other person.[1] Proponents assert that numbers larger than this generally require more restrictive rules, laws, and enforced norms to maintain a stable, cohesive group. It has been proposed to lie between 100 and 230, with a commonly used value of 150.[2][3] Dunbar’s number states the number of people one knows and keeps social contact with, and it does not include the number of people known personally with a ceased social relationship, nor people just generally known with a lack of persistent social relationship, a number which might be much higher and likely depends on long-term memory size.

The globalization of the manufacture of household objects has put us in a situation similar to that of online social networks. Theoretically we can own as many things as we can afford. And if we can’t afford them, we can wait until they make their way to the deep discount stores and outlets and then buy them for below the cost of production. These things, by making themselves strange strangers — they raise their hands and step out from the background a stranger in our midst. But once our food and clothing becomes inscribed into our social space and wants to have a conversation about origins and process, can we really keep consuming at our current pace? Will the slots available in the cognitive limit of our Dunbar number now have to include all the objects that are waking up around us in this Internet of things?

We are waking up inside a world that is waking up to find us waking up inside of it.

« Previous Entries