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Category: time

Variations on Heraclitus

We see the digital begin to stream on the Network and think we’ve seen something new. At what point did we start to see the analog stream? We call to things by name and they come from every quarter. It’s no longer enough that they stream; when we call, what comes? And what call do we make? We can focus on the medium over the message, and that will tell us something about our environment. But as background and foreground become compressed into a single mesh, we look more intently to the intimacy of the message.

Variations on Heraclitus

By Louis MacNeice (1961)

Even the walls are flowing, even the ceiling,
Nor only in terms of physics; the pictures
Bob on each picture rail like floats on a line
While the books on the shelves keep reeling
Their titles out into space and the carpet
Keeps flying away to Arabia nor can this be where I stood –
Where I shot the rapids I mean – when I signed
On a line that rippled away with a pen that melted
Nor can this now be the chair – the chairoplane of a chair –
That I sat in the day that I thought I had made up my mind
And as for that standard lamp it too keep waltzing away
Down an unbridgeable Ganges where nothing is standard
And lights are but lit to be drowned in honour and spite of
        some dark
And vanishing goddess. No, whatever you say,
Reappearance presumes disappearance, it may not be nice
Or proper or easily analysed not to be static
But none of your slide snide rules can catch what is sliding
        so fast
And, all you advisers on this by the time it is that,
I just do not want your advice
Nor need you be troubled to pin me down in my room
Since the room and I will escape for I tell you flat:
One cannot live in the same room twice.

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High Fidelity in the Age of Digital Reproduction

In his 1979 essay “The Studio as Compositional Tool“, Brian Eno works through the set of technical innovations that resulted in the odd occurrence of person who didn’t play any musical instrument particularly well, didn’t read or write music, nonetheless ending up as a composer. Eno lacked all the traditional tools of the trade. It was only when sound was mediated through recording that it became a plastic material that could be manipulated into song-like structures.

Here’s Eno on the transition from transmission to translation:

So, to tape recording: till about the late ’40s, recording was simply regarded as a device for transmitting a performance to an unknown audience, and the whole accent of recording technique was on making what was called a “more faithful” transmission of that experience. It began very simply, because the only control over the relative levels of sounds that went onto the machine was how far they were from the microphone – like device. The accent was on the performance, and the recording was a more or less perfect transmitter of that, through the cylinder and wax disc recording stages, until tape became the medium by which people were recording things.

The move to tape was very important, because as soon as something’s on tape, it becomes a substance which is malleable and mutable and cuttable and reversible in ways that discs aren’t. It’s hard to do anything very interesting with a disc – all you can do is play it at a different speed, probably; you can’t actually cut a groove out and make a little loop of it. The effect of tape was that it really put music in a spatial dimension, making it possible to squeeze the music, or expand it.

When we talk about a “more faithful” recording, the word “fidelity” enters the conversation. Fidelity is the quality of being loyal or faithful. Originally, it had the sense of taking an oath, as in swearing fealty to a monarch. Fidelity also has the sense of honoring oaths with regard to a spouse. A high-fidelity recording transports the original performance transparently—it is as though you are there. Poor fidelity dishonors the performance by leaving pieces of it behind or adding in artifacts that weren’t a part of the original. If we are a lover of a particular piece of music, we might charge a bad recording with infidelity.

In Eno’s recording studio, sounds become plastic. It’s only when a sound has been transformed into something that can itself be transformed that it becomes useful for constructing music. And this is the point where the sound no longer has fidelity to its source. The sound is only interesting to the extent of its potential infidelity. Transferring sound into a transformable recording media used to require a professional technical process. With digital recording, sound is directly sampled and encoded into a plastic media.

“I’d rather talk about the Plastic Eno Band, actually. It’s been in existence for a couple of years now. Over the past six years I’ve accumulated over 14 plastic musical instruments with a very wide gamut of sounds. And I’ve found that by slowing them down or speeding them up on tape, I can imitate any electric sound. With this in mind, I want to make a straight-forward rock record and then appear on ‘Top Of The Pops’ with a bunch of liggers playing these things. It would be an experiment in concrete music really as well as being an encouragement to all these kids who can’t afford their Vox amplifiers. There are so many things I want to do that will lose me so much money. . .”

As all media are slowly replaced with their digital equivalents, this shaky relationship with fidelity is true of more than just sound. Think about the camera and photography. How do we capture a scene with a camera? We see a moment we’d like to commemorate and we take aim with our camera. The flash from the camera floods the scene with enough light to get a good exposure. Here the process of recording essentially alters the source in the pursuit of fidelity. A skilled photographer may be able to light a scene for the camera such that when it’s processed, the photograph resembles the scene as it might have unfolded had no photograph been taken.

In the iPhone, the camera itself becomes a computerized photo studio and a compositional tool, in Eno’s sense. The photo itself is just the digital material that can be transformed with a set of filters. We don’t expect the snapshot to capture the mood; like the professional, we’ll fix it in post-production. We quickly apply a set of filters that more appropriately capture the mood of the scene and then flick the digital file into the stream of Twitter or Instagram. Is it the infidelity of the digital that enables another sort of fidelity? Or are we simply projecting the kind of scene we’d like others to imagine us playing a role within.

When we consider the picture being constructed of us through the data exhaust we emit in our online activities and our encounters with electronic and surveillance systems—does it make sense to talk about the fidelity, the truth, of the picture? Is the picture any more true because it’s constructed of largely unconscious digital moments? Is the ‘candid’ photo taken through a telephoto lens by a paparazzi of a movie star in their everyday life more true than the ‘glamour’ photograph constructed to create an image? When you apply for a job, do you present the candid or the glamour resume? How about applying for a loan at the bank, do you walk in the door with your candid or glamour finances?

In digital recording we have the production medium that is most open to transformation. In digital presentation, we have the consumption medium most open to transformation, both before we receive it, and after. Anyone with some form of computer has their own digital post-production facility. The blemishes can be removed, the wrong notes fixed and even the focal point of the image can be selected later.

If we were to imagine a medium that could somehow vouch for the fidelity of that which it recorded, it would be the opposite of the digital. This medium would capture the mark of the real and from that point forward it would be unalterable. In a strange way, in that moment, the mark would become more real than the real. The real itself would fade and change with time, but the mark would always have the vibrancy of the moment the impression was captured. In essence, this is the problem with using database models to stand in for real processes.

There was a time when to call something ‘artificial’ was to confer the highest compliment. The ‘real’ was a low form of existence that lacked the trappings of civilization. It was something that hadn’t been ‘fixed’ in post-production. The digital era has enabled new levels of artifice. The ‘real’ and the ‘natural’ may have to make way for the artificial. To ease the transition, the real and the natural will be the first things we need to simulate. As the French dramatist Jean Giraudoux once said:

“The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”

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Going Orbital: Content and its Discontents

The image is an arresting one, content orbiting around a new center of gravity. Cameron Koczon, is his essay Orbital Content, addresses what he sees as a new breed of bookmarklet: Instapaper, Svpply and Readability. These applications allow a user to extract content from its original location—and then copy and transmit it to a personal archive. With Instapaper and Readability this may involve using a bookmarklet on a desktop-based web browser to DVR a long-form article from a publisher’s web site for later consumption on an iPad. With Svpply, it may be extracting a favorite item from an online eCommerce site to create a cross-domain curated scrapbook stream that’s shared in a social media context. Content exists as free satellites, plucked from their originating orbits and placed into a personal orbit.

The bookmarklet application occupies an interesting space. It sits at the edge of a desktop application—the browser—and operates on “pages” requested by the browser from servers on the Network. Rather than simply creating a shortcut to a specific URL, the bookmarklet is javascript code that runs on the current page. Because it holds this outside position, it can mix together code from multiple domains, blending the intentions of the page publisher, data or snippets from other sources, and the intentions of the user. In the case of “orbital content,” the bookmarklet is the transport mechanism, the user pushes a button and specified content is instantly transported from the orbit of one sun to another. Koczon’s enthusiasm about these new bookmarklet-based services begs the question whether browserOS apps can gain awareness in the popular imagination.

While the idea of a new orbit is quite exciting, we still seem to be stuck with the word “content.” The very word “content” has engendered a certain amount of discontent. It turns the fire of the written word into a bland abstraction. It’s the equivalent of a factory that turns out “widgets.” It’s the sausage that’s ground through content management systems. When speaking of this new orbital stuff, content seems exactly the wrong word. Content is the thing which is contained—the stuff inside of the boundary. In the case of orbital content, we are not content. The word “content” also refers to a state of happiness—being content. There’s a sense of acceptance of conditions or circumstances, of acquiescence. In neither sense of the word can this new orbital stuff be called content. We do not acquiesce to its circumstances—we break it out of its container and pull it into a new orbit.

We treat the digital as another kind of analog medium. Since it can simulate anything, we extend the analog by simulating it with the digital. In vain, we then attempt to impose the natural boundaries of analog economics onto the digital. By stamping these limitations onto the digital, we put it into analog clothes and ask everyone to behave accordingly. To mass produce significant quantities of “identical” analog objects requires an industrial-scale factory. An identical digital object is forged each time a request is made to a web server on the Network. The original bits aren’t transported from here to there, copies of the bits are distributed to anyone who asks—production is reproduction, presentation is representation.

This is major Tom to ground control, I’m stepping through the door
And I’m floating in a most peculiar way
And the stars look very different today
Here am I floatin’ ’round my tin can far above the world
Planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do

Though I’m past one hundred thousand miles, I’m feeling very still
And I think my spaceship knows which way to go

The digital can be passed by reference or by value over the Network. The first preserves the integrity of the data, always pointing back to a single source—pointers rather than copies of bits are passed around. An updated source doesn’t require an updated pointer. A source could change incrementally, or totally, and still employ the same pointers. The second method begins the process of entropy, time-stamped bits are copied and sent, but once out on the wire, their link to the source is broken. An updated source marks a difference with the distributed bits. When the source changes, the distributed copy inscribes a historical state of the source. With every incremental change to the source, the difference in the distributed copy grows.

The kind of copying done in the practice of orbital content is digital rather than analog. Traditionally, the value of a copy has been in its completeness and exactitude. A factory that turns out widgets that sport too much variance is said to have a quality assurance problem. When Instapaper copies, it copies the pointer for exactness and then only a portion of a web page. The digital can make wholes out of any parts—there’s a legible boundary between every one and zero. It can be compared to harvesting a food crop, the ears of corn are gathered and the stalk and roots are discarded. To a publisher, this is a description of stripping the business model from the editorial.

The publisher asks the digital to behave as previous mediums always have—ink, once it is imprinted on paper, has a permanent presentation. Television programs are broadcast and the screen passively plays them. We can take a pen and draw a mustache on a photo in the newspaper, or mute the sound of our favorite television show while the commercial plays, but there’s a higher bar to clipping out segments and reusing them for our own purposes. Analog forms of automating the process have proved too costly and cumbersome.

All the while we thrill and lament the rush of traditional media toward the digital, we still tend to view it through analog glasses. The web page as delivered from the server to the browser is meant to define an end point. The code is delivered and ready for presentation. The static page is given a sense of flow and time with AJAX-based page updates from backstage, altering the presentation in memory through manipulations of the document object model (DOM). The practice of orbital content takes the page, not as an endpoint, but as an input to a process. Shedding their analog clothes, the digital bits making up the page show themselves not as an ending, but as a potential beginning. Using Instapaper, I pipe a designated section of the page, the story I’d like to read later, to my reading room where it’s poured into the format I prefer for reading electronic documents. I define a new endpoint, but it could also be a potential starting point as some portion is shared in another context.

In general, the browser application space (bookmarklets) has made significant strides, it’s gained a cross-platform software infrastructure with Phil Windley’s event-driven scripting language, KRL (Kynetx). And Apple has taken Readablity and Instapaper seriously enough to incorporate similar functionality into the forthcoming browser operating system in Lion. This follows the historical pattern of fundamental features being absorbed into the infrastructure of the host platform. The larger picture is that “web pages” are now both machine readable and scriptable for individuals, something known to the spiders at Google for a long time. No need to wait for the so-called semantic web, the hooks are already there.

David Gelernter defined an alternative to the desktop metaphor called LifeStreams. Instead of named files in folders, inside of folders, inside of desk drawers—nothing needs to be named, things just appear in context in a time-stamped stream. Streams can be filtered by different contexts, organized in time rather than space. Future events put into the stream eventually pop up as something occurring today. With Facebook’s newsfeed, Twitter’s stream, the various photo and location services, we’ve become accustomed to dealing with ranked lists and time-ordered streams. Even the output of these new orbital content services generally takes the form a of stream. In other words, orbital content isn’t really orbital either.

But the metaphor is enchanting enough to do the thought experiment, to take the stream and bend it into a circular shape, an orbit. Timelines are one way of expressing time, but we also have a long history with circular time. We live through hours, days, weeks, months, seasons and years. These things we DVR for later, might actually take the shape of satellites circulating in a personal orbit. Sort of like editing and layering loops, but using more than digital samples of music. What goes around, comes around—imagine orbital content as orbiting content.

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Contra Optimization: 4th Time Around

The whole train of thought started in the most unlikely spot. It’s a bit of a random walk, an attempt at moving in circles to get closer to a destination. I was listening to a podcast called ‘Sound Opinions‘ and Al Kooper was talking about the sessions in Nashville for Bob Dylan’s ‘Blonde on Blonde.’ They didn’t have a tape recorder, so Dylan would teach Kooper the changes and then Kooper would play them over and over again on a piano in Dylan’s hotel room. Dylan worked on the lyrics, Kooper played the changes and gradually, over many hours, the songs took shape.

Kristofferson described the scene: “I saw Dylan sitting out in the studio at the piano, writing all night long by himself. Dark glasses on,” and Bob Johnston recalled to the journalist Louis Black that Dylan did not even get up to go to the bathroom despite consuming so many Cokes, chocolate bars, and other sweets that Johnston began to think the artist was a junkie: “But he wasn’t; he wasn’t hooked on anything but time and space.”

Thinking about that process, I wondered if it would actually have been made better, more efficient, through the use of a tape recorder. Would the same or better songs have emerged from a process where a tape recorder mechanically reproduced the chord sequence as Dylan worked on the lyrics. Presumably, Kooper didn’t play like a robot, creating an identical sonic experience each time through. While Dylan and Kooper’s repetitive process eventually honed in on the song—narrowing the sonic field to things that seem to work—the resonances of the journey appear to be resident in the grooves. From this observation a question emerged: what is learned from a repetition that isn’t a mechanical reproduction, but rather a kind of performance? This kind of repetition seems to have the shape of a inward spiral.

We rush toward optimization and efficiency, those are the activities that increase the yield of value from our commerce engines. The optimal, by definition, means the best. Recently Nasism Taleb exposed the other side of optimization. When there’s a projected relative stability in an environment, as well as stable inputs and outputs for a system, optimization results in a higher, more efficient, production of value. In times of instability, change and uncertainty, optimization produces a brittle infrastructure that must use any excess value it generates to prop itself up in the face of unanticipated change. Unless there’s a reversion to the previous stable state, the system eventually suffers a catastrophic failure. Robustness in uncertain times has to be built from flexibility, agility and a managed portfolio of options. Any strategic analysis might first take note of whether one is living in interesting times or not.

Some paths of thought can’t be fully explored by using optimization techniques. We tend to run quickly toward what Tim Morton calls the “top object” or the “bottom object.” The top object is the most general systematic concept from whence comes everything (“anything you can do, I can do meta“). To create this kind of schema you need to find a place to stand that allows you to draw a circle around everything—except, of course, the spot on which you’re standing. The bottom object is the tiny fundamental bit of stuff—Democritus’s atom—from which all things are constructed. Although physics does seem to be having a tough time getting to the bottom of the bottom object—they keep finding false bottoms, non-local bottoms, anti-bottoms and all kinds of weird goings on. The idea that there may be ‘turtles all the way down’ no longer seems far fetched.

Moving in the opposite direction from a solid top or bottom, we run into Graham Harman’s presentation of Bruno Latour’s concept of irreducibility. Here’s Latour on the germ of the idea:

“I knew nothing, then, of what I am writing now but simply repeated to myself: ‘Nothing can be reduced to anything else, nothing can be deduced from anything else, everything may be allied to everything else. This was like an exorcism that defeated demons one by one. It was a wintry sky, and a very blue. I no longer needed to prop it up with a cosmology, put it in a picture, render it in writing, measure it in a meteorological article, or place it on a Titan to prevent it falling on my head […]. It and me, them and us, we mutually defined ourselves. And for the first time in my life I saw things unreduced and set free.”

In his book, Prince of Networks, Harman expands on Latour’s idea. No top object, no bottom object, just a encompassing field of objects that form a series of alliances:

“An entire philosophy is foreshadowed in this anecdote. every human and nonhuman object now stands by itself as a force to reckon with. No actor, however trivial, will be dismissed as mere noise in comparison with its essence, its context, its physical body, or its conditions of possibility. everything will be absolutely concrete; all objects and all modes of dealing with objects will now be on the same footing. In Latour’s new and unreduced cosmos, philosophy and physics both come to grips with forces in the world, but so do generals, surgeons, nannies, writers, chefs, biologists, aeronautical engineers, and seducers.”

The challenge of Latour’s and Harman’s thought is to think about objects without using the tool of reduction. It’s a strange sensation to think things through without automatically rising to the top, or sinking to the bottom.

Taking the principle in a slightly different direction we arrive at Jeff Jonas’s real-time sensemaking systems and a his view of merging and purging data versus an approach he calls entity resolution. Ask any IT worker about any corporate database and they’ll talk about how dirty the data is. It’s filled with errors, bad data, incompatibilities and it seems they can never get the budget to properly clean things up (disambiguation). The batch-based merge and purge system attempts to create a single correct version of the truth in an effort to establish the highest authority. Here’s Jonas:

“Outlier attribute suppression versus context accumulating: As merge purge systems rely on data survivorship processing they drop outlying attributes, for example, the name Marek might sometimes appear as Mark due to data entry error. Merge purge systems would keep Marek and drop Mark. Entity resolution systems keep all values whether they compete or not, as such, these systems accumulate context. By keeping both Marek and Mark, the semantic reconciliation algorithms can benefit by recognizing that sometimes Marek is recorded as Mark.”

Collecting the errors, versions and incompatibilities establishes a rich context for the data. The data isn’t always bright and shiny, looking its clear and unambiguous best—it has more life to it than that. It’s sorta like when you hear someone called by the wrong name, but you know who’s being talked about anyway. Maybe you don’t offer a correction, but simply continue the conversation.

And this brings us back to Al Kooper banging out the changes on a piano in a hotel room, while Dylan sits hunched over a typewriter, pounding out lyrics. Somehow out of this circling through the songs over and over again, the thin wild mercury sound of Blonde on Blonde eventually took hold in the studio and was captured on tape.

Plotting your route as the crow flies is one way to get to a destination. But I have to wonder if crows really do always fly as the crow flies.