Category Archives: commentary

Listening To The Visual Microphone

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Sound happens when things vibrate, displacing air and creating pressure waves that fall within the spectrum of waves the human ear can detect.

Researchers at MIT, working with Microsoft & Adobe, have developed an algorithm that reads video recordings of vibrating objects more or less like a microphone reads the vibrations of a diaphragm. I like to think it turns the world into a record: instead of vibrations etched in vinyl, the algorithm reads vibrations etched in pixels of light–it’s a video phonograph, something that lets us hear the sounds written in the recorded motion of objects. As researcher Abe Davis explains,

We’re recovering sounds from objects. That gives us a lot of information about the sound that’s going on around the object, but it also gives us a lot of information about the object itself, because different objects are going to respond to sound in different ways.

So, this process gives us info about both the ambient audio environment, and the materiality of the videorecorded objects–that’s a lot of information, info that could obviously be used for all sorts of surveillance. And that will likely be people’s primary concern with this practice.

But I think this is about a lot more than surveillance. This research reflects some general trends that cross both theory, pop culture, and media/tech:


Anti-Harassment statements – you don’t know until you know


It seems like the science fiction and fantasy community is at a point where every month or so we have some kind of dust-up regarding harassment at conferences and conventions. Some of these have actually stretched over many months, and watching them both from the inside and the outside is always an interesting experience, in part because I’m intimately and personally interested in the outcome, but also because it’s like a giant master class in what not to do, as a conference, when dealing with harassment.


Don’t Opt Out, Take Back


Imagine you live at the end of a cul-de-sac in a subdevelopment that is only accessible by a single gate that leads out to a large, high-speed arterial road.  Your friends, your job, your kids’ school are all outside of this development which means life is lived through and on the road that connects your subdevelopment to the rest of the world. Now imagine that, without warning or any kind of democratic process, the company that maintains that road (private companies are subcontracted to do regular maintenance on public roads all the time) decides to add trees on either side of the road to reduce car speed. It’s a relatively benign design intervention and it works. In fact the trees work so well that the company’s engineers publish in a few journals which directly benefits the company financially, through prominence within the truly boring world of road maintenance. When the residents get wind of this experiment, and demand to know why they weren’t even notified, the owner of the road maintenance company says, “if you don’t like it use a different road.” That mind-bending response actually makes more sense than what has been coming out of OKCupid and Facebook these last few weeks. (more…)

Online Dating and the Bureaucratization of Love

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Romantic love occupies a significant amount of space in both popular culture and, often, the human psyche. It is the muse of artists, musicians, and poets; the downfall of great characters; the impetus for sheer giddy joy, deep comfort, and the sharpest most debilitating pain. Truly, what else matters when you’re in the arms of a lover? What else is of import after a lover breaks your heart? Of course, romantic love, as  conceived in the contemporary West, has an end game: marriage and/or life partnership along with the formation of a family.

This has not always been the case, and is not the case everywhere. The notion of romantic love began with knights and ladies of nobility and had nothing to do with marriage, or even sex, while arranged marriages and dowry agreements have little to do with romantic love.  That is, the coupling of love with marriage is not compulsory, but culturally constructed as such. And it strikes me, when I think about it, as a bit of an odd couple. (more…)

On LUCY, Feminism, and the Strong Female Character


[Edited to note: It's been pointed out to me that I'm conflating transhumanism and posthumanism a bit here; gonna leave it as it is, but I agree and I just wanted to flag that.]

I’ve seen a lot of yelling about Lucy. The yelling is a major reason why I wanted to do some yelling of my own. And like so many times before, I find myself in the situation of feeling like much of what I could say has been said before by others, and better than I could, but I’m still going to yell a bit, because there are things about this film that trouble me profoundly, and I’m even more profoundly troubled by some of what people are saying about the film itself.


Politics, Ruin, and Digital Space

Although it was about two years ago that I wrote the post that sparked my own interest in ruined and abandoned spaces, it’s something to which, you might have noticed, I periodically return.


The Quantified DJ Set: Work Hard, Play Hard

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DJs need to know how to mix records, sure, but even the best mixer will tank if they don’t know how to read a crowd. You have to know what kinds of songs keep your crowd dancing, and what kinds of songs send them to the bar or the bathroom. Usually this involves a combination of prior knowledge (of the venue, of who you’re opening for, the night’s theme, etc.) and actual observation of the crowd–do they look and sound like they’re into it?

Lightwave is a platform that uses WiFi enabled wristbands to track and transmit biometric data–their temperature, heartrate, and the volume of sound they hear–from individual crowdmembers to a program that analyzes and visualizes that data. Lightwave visualizes audience responses to…well, that’s one of the questions I have here: what experience is it visualizing? Is it the DJ performance? The clubbing itself? Both? It seems absolutely incorrect to say that Lightwave visualizes audience responses to music. Clubbling is a social and interactive experience, and music is just one factor in the mix, so to speak. When you’re dancing, you’re responding to other people around you, to the overall ‘vibe’ of the crowd–this is what makes it more fun than dancing to the same records alone at your house.


What the EPA’s Kardashian Tweet Says About Affective Labor

Late Monday night it was discovered that one of the EPA’s Twitter accounts was a C-list celebrity on the popular iPhone game Kim Kardashian: Hollywood. The Tweet was one of those automatically generated ones meant to announce progress in a game or the unlocking of an achievement. Its easy to imagine the scenario: an over-worked or deeply bored social media manager didn’t realize they were signed into their work account instead of their personal one and let the tweet go. Or maybe a family member borrowed their work phone. Who knows? What we do know is that the tweet immediately garnered thousands of retweets and countless more screenshots were shared on other platforms. Why is this even remotely funny? What sorts of publicly held believes does it reveal? (more…)

The Other Little Blue Pill

Pharmaceutical drugs do an array of things to the body. They can affect mood, energy, blood flow, experiences of pain, and capacities for pleasure.  Their increasing prevalence in the marketplace and home medicine cabinets suggests an addition to the old adage that ‘we are what we eat.’ Today, we are also what we take.

But embedded within cultural realities,  pharmaceuticals do not simply do things to the body. Rather, they are the conduits through which the body becomes connected with and constituted through economies of both money and moral value. Pharmaceutical drugs are at once tools of medicinal healing and commodities of social and financial exchange. In understanding the implications of any particular pharmaceutical drug, then, it is pertinent to ask not only what it does, but what the pharmaceutical company is selling, to whom, and with what kind of trajectory.  (more…)

An attempt at a precise & substantive definition of ‘neoliberalism,’ plus some thoughts on algorithms

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One secondary effect of the blow-up over Jack Halberstam’s trigger warning essay is the widening skepticism of the term “neoliberal” as a sort of empty buzzword. Because I just finished teaching a grad seminar whose main objective was to figure out what the hell we mean when we say “neoliberalism” (here is the tumblr for the class), I thought I might be of some assistance here. I think the term “neoliberalism” can mean something useful and specific if we’re more cognizant of its use.

It seems to me that a lot of the confusion around the term is that it is used in (at least) two senses: one indicates a period in time, and one indicates an ideology. Just as “the Cold War” or “modernity” can refer to both a historical time-frame and a dominant ideology that shaped that historical period, “neoliberal” can mean both “now” and the ideology that informs this “now.”