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Over at The New Inquiry, an excellent piece by Trevor Paglen about machine-readable imagery was recently posted. In “Invisible Images (Your Pictures Are Looking at You)”, Paglen highlights the ways in which algorithmically driven breakdowns of photo-content is a phenomenon that comes along with digital images. When an image is made of machine-generated pixels rather than chemically-generated gradations, machines can read these pixels, regardless of a human’s ability to do so. With film, machines could not read pre-developed exposures. With bits and bytes, machines have access to image content as soon as it is stored. The scale and speed enabled by this phenomenon, argues Paglen, leads to major market- and police-based implications.

Overall, I really enjoyed the essay—Paglen does an excellent job of highlighting how systems that take advantage of machine-readable photographs work, as well as outlining the day-to-day implications of the widespread use of these systems. There is room, however, for some historical context surrounding both systematic photographic analysis and what that means for the unsuspecting public.

Specifically, I’d like to point to Allan Sekula’s landmark 1986 essay, “The Body and the Archive”, as a way to understand the socio-political history of a data-based understanding of photography. In it, Sekula argues that photographic archives are important centers of power. He uses Alphonse Bertillon and Francis Galton as perfect examples of such: the former is considered the reason why police forces fingerprint, the latter is the father of eugenics and—most relevant to Sekula—inventor of composite portraiture.

So when Paglen notes that “all computer vision systems produce mathematical abstractions from the images they’re analyzing, and the qualities of those abstractions are guided by the kind of metadata the algorithm is trying to read,” I can’t help but think about the projects by Bertillon and Galton. These two researchers believed that mathematical abstraction would provide a truth—one from the aggregation of a mass of individual metrics, the other from a composition of the same, but in photographic form.

Certainly, Paglen has read Sekula’s piece—the New Inquiry essay often references “visual culture of the past” or “classical visual culture” and “The Body and the Archive” played a major part in the development of visual culture studies. And it’s important to note that my goal in referencing the 1986 piece is not to dismiss Paglen’s concerns as “nothing new.” Rather, I think it’s important to consider the “not-new-ness” of the socio-political implications of these image-reading systems (see: 19th century scientists trying to determine the “average criminal face”) alongside the increased speed and “accuracy” of the technology. That is, this is something humans have been trying to do for hundreds of years, but now it is more widely integrated into our day-to-day.

At the end of his essay, Paglen offers a few calls to action:

To mediate against the optimizations and predations of a machinic landscape, one must create deliberate inefficiencies and spheres of life removed from market and political predations–“safe houses” in the invisible digital sphere. It is in inefficiency, experimentation, self-expression, and often law-breaking that freedom and political self-representation can be found.

I really like these suggestions, though I’d offer one more: re-creation. That is, what if we asked our students to recreate the type of abstracting experiments performed by the likes of Galton and Bertillon, but to use today’s technology? Better yet, what if we asked them to recreate today’s machine-reading systems using 19th century tools? This sort of historical-fictive practice doesn’t require students’ experiments to “work”, per se. Rather, it asks them to consider the steps taken and decisions made along the way. The whys and hows and wheres. In taking on this task, students might be able to more concretely connect the subjectivity inherent in our present-day systems by calling out the individual decisions that need to be made during their development. We might illustrate possible motives behind projects like Google DeepDream or Facebook’s DeepFace.

Within our new algorithmic watchmen are embedded a plethora of stakeholders and the things they want or need. Paglen, unfortunately, doesn’t do a very good job reminding us of this (he paints a picture, so to speak, of machines reading machines, but forgets that said machines must be programmed by humans at some point). And I’d be curious to know what he had mind when he refers to “safe houses” without “market or political predations” (as a colleague recently reminded me, even the Tor project can thank the US government for its existence).

To conclude, I’d like to highlight an important project by an artist named Zach Blas, Facial Wesponization Suite (2011-2014). The piece is meant as a protest against facial recognition software in both consumer-level devices, corporate and governmental security systems, and research efforts. “One mask,” writes Blas, “the Fag Face Mask, generated from the biometric facial data of many queer men’s faces, is a response to scientific studies that link determining sexual orientation through rapid facial recognition techniques.” Blas uses composite 3D scans of faces to build masks that confuse facial recognition systems.

Facial Weaponization SuiteFacial Weaponization Suite by Zach Blas

This project is important here for two reasons: firstly, it’s an example of exactly the kind of thing Paglen says won’t work (“In the long run, developing visual strategies to defeat machine vision algorithms is a losing strategy,” he writes). But that’s only true if you see Facial Weaponization Suite as simply a means to confuse the software. On the other hand, if you recognize the performative nature of the work—individuals walking around in public wearing bright pink masks of amorphous blobs—you quickly understand that the piece can also confuse humans, i.e., bystanders, hopefully bringing an awareness of these machinic systems to the fore.

Wearing the masks in public, however, can be a violation of some state penal codes, which brings me to my second point. Understanding the technology here is not enough. Rather, the technology must be studied in a way that incorporates multiple disciplines: history, of course, but also law, biomedicine, communication hierarchies and infrastructure, and so on.

To be clear, I see Paglen’s essay as an excellent starting point. It begins to bring to our attention what makes our machine-readable world particularly dangerous without tripping any apocalyptic warning sirens. Let’s see if we can’t take it a step further, however, by taking a few steps back.

Gabi Schaffzin is a PhD student in Visual Arts, Art Practice at UC San Diego. He wears his sunglasses at night.

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23andMe Co-Founder Anne Wojcicki
by Thomas Hawk on Flickr

Anne Wojcicki’s thinks it’s “incredibly meaningful” to honor scientists who are “purists” who “love what they do” and have “never looked for any kind of celebrity.” So she and a slew of other Silicon Valley technocrats gathered to recognize these altruistic innovators at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View last week by giving them a spotlight on primetime network television and also $3 million each. At the event, called the Breakthrough Prize ceremony, the 23andMe CEO sat down with a reporter from Bloomberg to discuss the award, which, per her interviewer, should “empower scientists just like technologists are empowered in silicon valley.”

It is most likely wishful thinking to presume that the curriculum for a Yale bachelors of science in molecular biology—of which Wojcicki is a recipient—would include the likes of Ludwick Fleck or Bruno Latour. The former, a physician and biologist, was the author of Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact, originally published in Polish in 1935, though not translated into English until 1979. In it, Fleck tracks the history of research around syphilis, eventually outlining the concept of a “thought-collective”, a way to consider the social act of cognition—that is, how an idea changes and is passed down through history, from and to different individuals and circles. Syphilis, argues Fleck, as it was first known at the end of the 15th century was not the same syphilis that was cured nearly 500 years later. Latour, whose breakthrough work, Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Fact (cowritten with Steve Woolgar), was published the same year as the English translation of Genesis and Development, is most famous for enacting a sociology of science based on ethnography. He and Woolgar spent time in a laboratory watching how science is made—from discussions regarding funding and publishing to actual work at lab benches.

Reading Fleck and Latour help us realize that celebrating the individual is counter to how science works. Then again, to argue that the Breakthrough Prize should be more focused on the collective or that we should jettison the fantasy of a mad scientist isolated in a lab somewhere is to pretend like the Nobel Prize or MacArthur Genius Grant are not two of the highest honors bestowed in the field. But I have no interest in further critiquing this silly award show (which you can catch on Fox this Sunday night at 8/7c!). Instead, I think it’s worth paying close attention to what individuals like Wojcicki are saying and doing when it comes to how they see science in action—a science they want us to believe is hindered by seeking to critique it through social and political lenses. One that is revolutionary in its own right, performed for the sake of truth, regardless of ulterior, capitalist motives.

During the same Bloomberg interview, when asked for her thoughts on the impending the rich asshole administration, Wojcicki offered that “I’m a wait and see [kind of person]. I want to be able to judge once things are happening.” This was December 4, 2016—26 days after the rich asshole was elected and started building his cabinet. Nine hundred and fifty six days after he tweeted that there are “many such cases” of vaccines causing “AUTISM”. One thousand two hundred and eighty seven days since he argued that “Fracking poses ZERO health risks.” And 1,463 days after he declared that “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.”1 What, exactly, is Wojcicki waiting for?

According to the Silicon Valley executive, she’s waiting to find out who is going to determine the rules which govern her business: the heads of the Food and Drug Administration and Health and Human Services. She notes that she is glad to have found out who will run HHS, though she doesn’t offer her opinions on the nomination of Representative Tom Price (R-Ga.)—a man whose career has been marked by, per The Huffington Post, “a constant…hostility to government interference with the practice of medicine.” Instead, she declares that she is “excited about the idea of potentially more freedoms.” Freedoms, one assumes, to go back to doing what made her company famous to begin with: using a customer’s DNA to provide them with their probability of getting sick. 23andMe was ordered to stop doing exactly that when, in a November 2013 letter, the FDA declared that “Most of the intended uses for [23andMe results]…have not been classified and thus require premarket approval or de novo classification.” Simply put, the FDA didn’t think it was appropriate for a company to tell its customers things that a doctor should be saying. This is, of course, the same FDA which is set to be run by Jim O’Neill, noted venture capitalist, libertarian, and Peter Thiel colleague.

It’s worth pointing out here that, per the FEC database, Wojcicki has given about a quarter million dollars worth of donations to Democratic Party candidates and committees over the past couple of years. This is a critical point, not because I think recognizing her support for the Clinton campaign and others is any sort of saving grace. Rather, we have to realize that the kind of rhetoric used here by Wojcicki and others—about empowering “scientists just like technologists” or believing that “with things like the Breakthrough Prize…it doesn’t matter what the government is saying as much”—is not partisan. In an interview a week earlier, she argued that an education system “decentralized down to the individual” will empower our next generation of scientists.

This is someone in charge of a private company collecting and storing over a million individuals’ DNA data. And while she notes that the company does not sell that data to large biotech and pharmaceutical companies, it charges quite a premium to engage in “research projects” with those companies, eventually sharing “anonymized” records with them. Combine this with the Breakthrough Prize and 23andMe becomes the gatekeeper and funder for research (not to mention the supplier—their recent “Genotyping Services for Research” offering lets universities and other labs purchase kits for study participants, effectively outsourcing their genotyping capabilities to Mountain View).

When Jonas Salk—whose institute was the subject of Latour’s Laboratory Life—championed the development and reproduction of a polio vaccine, he didn’t patent it. That’s not to say, however, that he and his fellow researchers weren’t properly funded (though it’s worth noting he never won the Nobel Prize). Instead, money came pouring in from donations collected by an organization called the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, founded by FDR and eventually renamed the March of Dimes due to the small donations it received from citizens. To suggest that today’s scientists use Salk as some sort of altruistic model is naive and not at all the goal of this blog post. But what are we left with when education and research and science are all “decentralized down to the individual”? This is a dangerously ahistorical and anti-communal approach to science. What sort of rights or powers do we give up when we acquiesce to a system of research based on market-values and, as one Forbes contributor suggests we do, buy into a system that “gives real scientists more celebrity treatment through awards shows, television, movies, advertisements and other means”? What happens when we treat science like a business, government like a menace, and the individual as the only way forward?

1. I won’t link directly to the rich asshole’s tweets, but for sources on my quotes, please see this piece from Scientific American.

Gabi Schaffzin is not a scientist, though he once played the Wizard of Oz in a fifth grade production. 

After my last post on Neil Degrasse Tyson and the (seemingly fictional?) War on Science, I received feedback from a few people suggesting that there was more to be written. In fact, more has been written; for well over a century, the field of science studies has been developing and shifting, comprised of scholars studying the history, philosophy, and sociology of “science” and many of its cousins (technology, asceticism, “innovation”, et al.). I am an artist who is starting to immerse myself in the field in order to strengthen my critique of technological mediation in culture. So while I don’t plan on using science studies frames in every one of my posts, I do expect there to be shades of its tenets throughout.

That said, where should one start to understand the history and development of science studies? There are, of course, the mainstays: the best-sellers like Thomas Khun’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions which reintroduced the term “paradigm” to the sciences and broader culture in general. Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison’s Objectivity is superb, especially for those of us in the visual culture side of things. But these works mark the spot on which I’d like to end, not begin.

Pierre Duhem

Late 19th century physicist, historian, and philosopher, Pierre Duhem, is a fascinating lesson in the importance of learning history, especially to a field with as widespread an influence and frequent changes as science. Alive during France’s Third Republic, Duhem saw the Catholic Church being pushed out of government as detrimental, an ignorance to the Church’s significant contributions to society (especially, of course, science) in the Middle Ages. This did not win him many friends in Paris and he was exiled to Bordeaux where, even without direct access to archives, he still penned the ten volume Le système du monde: histoire des doctrines cosmologiques de Platon à Copernic (The System of World: A History of Cosmological Doctrines from Plato to Copernicus). Maybe don’t try to read that. Instead give “The English School and Physical Theories” a looksee—it’s a fascinating case study in French nationalism and the subjectivity inherent to scientific approaches.

Boris Hessen

Here’s an amazing story: in 1931, a delegation from Soviet Russia gets on an airplane to London to attend the Second International Congress of the History of Science. On the plane are three notable figures: Boris Hessen, Nikolai Bukharin, and a guy named Ernst (né Arnosht) Kolman. Bukharin, who struggled for power with Stalin at one point (which gives you a hint of where he ends up) forgets his paper in Moscow and they turn the plane around. Kolman is there simply to watch over the delegation and make sure it espouses the proper party politics. Meanwhile, Hessen, a physicist who spent some time pre-revolution studying in Edinburgh, spends the entire flight writing out a paper entitled “The Social and Economic Roots of Newton’s Principia” which is then typed up by a pool of secretaries (who came with Hessen, et al) and published for the conference.

In the paper, Hessen makes an argument that attempts to resolve the Scientific Socialist philosophies governing his homeland (℅ Marx) and their absolute progressivism with the relatively new Einsteinian theories of relativity. In a sense, Hessen argues that Einsteinian theories must be incorporated into the party philosophy so that scientific progress might be achieved—but he has to do so by discounting Newtonian physics through an analysis of the social contexts in which they were developed. The historian Loren Graham (who, somehow, runs into Kolman at another International Congress in Moscow in 1971) notes that this paper is “one of the most influential reports ever presented at a meeting of historians of science.” So, probably worth a read.

Robert Merton

Born Meyer Schkolnick, Robert Merton chose to go by a stage name when performing magic (the show kind, not the Harry Potter “real” kind) as a child around Philadelphia in the 1920s. That stage name probably helped when he tried to get into Harvard in 1931 and was accepted. I cited Merton in my previous post, but I think he’s an important figure to review here, albeit briefly.

Merton, who was in the audience at Hessen’s talk in London in 1931, toyed with the question of “can there be a sociology of science?” This also explains why a search for his name on The Society Pages turns up a number of results. Merton understood that religion has an important and complicated relationship with science (as I sought to demonstrate previously), but his was different than what had come before—mainly, Hessen’s arguments about Newton, Descartes, and God. Instead, his turning to the Protestant ethic illustrates his commitment to Weberian theories of society.

This list is, of course, a very small tip of a very large iceberg. But this is not a science studies blog and I’m not a science studies scholar (yet), so I hope you’ll bear with me and check out those who I’ve recommended above. I’m also hoping that, if you know of any critical figures in the history of science studies, you’ll contribute them in the comments, below. I’m especially eager to learn of individuals who are not old white dudes.

But I’m also eager to post this list because when I tell most people that I’m working in science studies, the first response is almost always, “science what?” The idea that there is a place outside of science to understand the field is foreign to many, since science is posed, in itself, an answer to many quandaries about the natural world. The history of science, philosophy of science, and sociology of science are all critical places from which to understand so much of our culture. I hope I can bring more insights from the field throughout my contributions to this blog.

Science from Tenor
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On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, the rabbi at my synagogue gave a sermon about four themes, all of which he felt needed addressing when there was a larger crowd than usual (though, it should be noted, the sanctuary was sparsely filled, especially compared to the SRO crowd the day before): racism, sexism, anti-semitism, and “the war on science.” As he recited off his list, the first three items made perfect sense to me; I was even proud to hear him cover current events like the Black Lives Matter movement and Donald Trump’s misogyny and how they are understood within Jewish tradition (hint: the first one’s good, the second one’s bad). That fourth item, though, piqued my curiosity a bit.

Since when did a war on science begin? Is it like the ill-fated War on Drugs? Or the ill-fated War on Terror? Or the ill-fated War on Poverty?

It turned out the rabbi was talking specifically about climate change deniers and their penchant for ignoring the overwhelming evidence pointing towards the anthropocentric damage we’re doing to our planet. I admit that it was a bit refreshing to hear a clergyman align his religious values with scientific discourse, encouraging his congregation to do the same. He fell short of explicitly blaming market-based motives or any specific lobbying efforts for why the country as a whole struggles to enact legislation. But that’s to be expected considering his delicate position as congregational leader of a highly varied group, culturally and economically.

“Science”, of course, is a complex apparatus, an assemblage of research, experiments, textbooks, journals, breakthroughs, studies, and—oh yeah—scientists. If there is, in fact, a war on science, then it seems quite obvious to me that its allied forces (i.e., science’s great defenders) would be led by General Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist, host of National Geographic’s Cosmos, and oft-retweeted Twitter personality.

You may remember some of Tyson’s best work:

This tweet declaring that there are objective truths and that, by aligning ourselves with them, the world will become a better place.

Or this one, awkwardly defending Trump supporters.

And then there’s this one.

This last tweet is particularly characteristic of a common Tyson theme: science provides truth and order, while religion is dangerous and arbitrary.

Never mind that “science” can be used for nefarious purposes—see the white supremacists using 23andMe DNA test results to prove they are, in fact, white. Forget that, by its nature, science resists progress by assuming anomalies to be innocuous—see Thomas Khun in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions:

By ensuring that the paradigm will not be too easily surrendered, resistance guarantees that scientists will not be lightly distracted and that the anomalies that lead to paradigm change will penetrate existing knowledge to the core (65).

Instead, realize that science would probably not be science without religion.

In a 1983 essay titled “Motive Forces of the New Science”, Robert K. Merton offers that the ascetic imperatives of the Protestant ethic laid the groundwork for the consecration of scientific inquiry.  “Science embodies patterns of behavior which are congenial to Puritan tastes,” he writes, “Above all, it embraces two highly prized values: utilitarianism and empiricism” (119). Science and technology provided the tools and frameworks for increased power to merchants, a rising class in seventeenth century England. In a Puritan value system that preaches “methodic labor” and “constant diligence in one’s calling” (118), the orderly and dedicated actions of the scientist align beautifully. “And society, once dubious of the merits of those who devoted themselves to the ‘petty, insignificant details of boundless Nature,’ largely relinquished its doubts” (112).

Merton is sure to acknowledge that “Many ‘emancipated souls’ of the present day” are unfamiliar, even made uncomfortable by the aligned values once (still?) shared by science and religion. He points out that this is projecting twentieth (or twenty-first, as the case may be) century values on seventeenth century society. “Though it always serves to inflate the ego of the iconoclast and sometimes to extol the social images of his own day, ‘debunking’ may often supplant truth with error” (116).

It seems illogical and unlikely that an accomplished academician the likes of Tyson would be ignorant to this sort of basic sociology of science. But you can’t make it to the rank of General of the Scientific Defense Forces if you are not debunking, especially when your arguments are tweetable and GIFable.

So maybe the War on Science is actually most like the War on Christmas, Bill O’Reilly’s non-sensical, anglo-centric effort to convince his followers that saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” is somehow anti-Christian. Don’t worry, though, Gen. NDT has an answer for that, as well:

Content Advisory: The following contains references (including an embedded video) to sexual assault and misogyny.

Angela Washko @ UCSD

At the end of the panel following Angela Washko’s artist talk at UC San Diego’s Qualcomm Institute, there was time for two questions. The first came from a man in the audience who jumped to the mic in order to frame the artist’s work in the inevitable deluge of AR, or augmented reality technology (think holding up your phone and seeing a Pokestop where another passerby might just see the local Walgreens). The audience member, a computer scientist from UCSD, wanted to know what would happen once we “throw away this technology that we’re tethered to.”

Washko had begun the evening with a presentation about her work, starting with her performances in World of Warcraft, wherein she goes to some of the most popular areas in the game to perform certain actions or ask other players about issues like abortion and feminism. I found the piece both charming and troubling: at one point, Washko’s avatar orchestrates a conga-line type dance party in a field where orks and trolls frolick in harmony while acting like chickens (just trust me, go to 25:00 in the video below). During the WoW interviews, the situation was a bit less whimsical. In Washko‘s words:

I realized that players’ geographic dispersion generates a population that is far more representative of American opinion than those of the art or academic circles that I frequent in New York and San Diego, making it a perfect Petri dish for conversations about women’s rights, feminism and gender expression with people who are uninhibited by IRL accountability.

She finished her talk with her most recent project, The Game: The Game, a choose-your-own-adventure type, compiled using only footage and quotes from pick up artists’ how-to books and DVDs (the DVDs are prohibitively expensive so that those seeking only to critique the PUAs avoid doing so; per Washko, “I got a grant, so I bought them”). By this point, the audience was already familiar with both her preferred subjects of interrogation and also the extremely brave way she places herself at risk for the sake of her work. For her UCSD MFA thesis project, Washko convinced notorious pickup artist Roosh V to agree to a video interview. This was around the time during which #gamergate was garnishing a great deal of media attention and Roosh V had dedicated a section of his site’s forum to the type of mysoginist discourse that accompanied the hashtag on other various platforms. That Roosh V would agree, then, to be interviewed by a self-declared feminist and artist is a testament to Washko’s persistence; as part of the negotiations, she sent a photograph of herself to the PUA, allowing herself to be judged worthy of Roosh’s attention.

While Washko’s interview with Roosh is itself an important piece, the first clip from The Game: The Game that we saw was from a different pick up artist who goes by “RSD Julien”. In this clip, Julien begins by explaining that placing the word “now!” at the end of any declaration sets you up as an Alpha amongst Betas (“Afterparty. Now!”, “Cab. Now!”). Admittedly—ashamedly—I found myself chuckling. A serious-looking man yelling “now!”, declaring this would get him laid, the camera cutting between a head-on and side shot. It looked like a Real World audition tape. My lighthearted reaction quickly receded, however, as a significantly more troubling shot played on-screen: a hidden camera captures Julien forcing kisses onto an unwilling victim, shaming her into leaving her friends to get in a car with him, and finally carrying her away off camera. At this point, I was embarrassed for having ever chuckled.

During the panel after Washko’s presentation, Benjamin Bratton asked the artist who The Game: The Game is for, “who should be playing this?” Her answer was simple: men. Femme-presenting women, she noted, experience the goings on from the narrative on a daily basis, they need not be reminded. Men, on the other hand, usually end up playing the game twice, “to see what actually happens if they try and go along with the pick-up artists.” Immediately, I began to consider John Rauch’s Cinema of Cruelty, an adaptation of avant-garde playwright, Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, a mode of performance which assaults the audience, garnering great affect from their subconscious. In Sensuous Scholarship, Paul Stoller, writing about both Artaud and Rauch, notes that, “In a cinema of cruelty the filmmaker’s goal is not to recount per se, but to present an array of unsettling images that seek to transform the audience psychologically and politically” (120). Washko’s work did just that; the anxiety being produced by her work in that room was palpable.

And so we return to the first question asked of the artist: “what happens when AR takes over…the game is everywhere…when we are autonomous and the possibilities are endless?”

Not unsurprisingly, the question was fielded first by panelist Jurgen Schulze, another computer scientist and professor at UCSD, who presented a utopian vision of being able to paint the characters we wish to see on the individuals around us. We will make our worlds whatever we want them to be. Bratton followed up with a refreshingly realistic view (albeit in the same obfuscating jargon with which he writes), describing an AR-laden world “wherein whatever form of cognitive totalitarianism you happen to subscribe to becomes literally the perceptual platform by which you sort of work through and then the incommensurability of the gamifications of interaction becomes that much noisier.” This felt more like it. Afterall, Washko had already explained that 55% of female avatars in WoW are actually played by men who often say that they prefer to look at a woman’s backside running around rather than a man’s. Imagine, then, these men with their AR goggles, painting whatever fetish they wish all over the town, reproducing an already overbearing sense of ownership over the objects, places, and—of course—people around them, but this time, with a convenient and dualist explanation that “it’s just a game” or “it’s all virtual.”

Fortunately, the second audience question left us on a much more productive note: a graduate student asked Washko to discuss the various points of entry and venues outside of art or academic circles in which she has performed her WoW actions. Her response—that she considers the performance of her work in WoW itself as “outside the art-world context”—was a quick one, but it was the question that left us with a critical reminder. Throughout her work, Washko has continuously used her body—be it a photograph, avatar, or her actual presence in a space—to facilitate and gain access to critical discourse within and surrounding technologically mediated spaces. One need only look at her Twitter mentions to even begin to understand what sort of sacrifice this represents. Panel moderator Ricardo Dominguez (who is also an activist, professor in the Visual Arts department at UCSD, and one of the founders of the Electronic Disturbance Theater) noted at one point that “code and algorithms carry with them histories and other types of scripting that we’ve dealt with and that we have to deal with daily.” Instead of dreaming about what might be once we don’t have monitors or keyboards as intermediaries, Washko has worked for a decade on bringing these histories and scripts to the fore. She has taken them, written them into assaults on her audience’s senses, and drawn attention to a critical and continuous discourse, all at the risk of her own safety and wellbeing.

Gabi Schaffzin is a PhD student in Visual Arts at the University of California, San Diego. You can find more of his work at his website or on his Twitter timeline.

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Vilem Flusser’s work is still rather obscure in English language academic circles. Only a handful of major works from the media philosopher have been translated from his native German or adopted Portugese, and even that was only in the past two decades, well after his death in a car accident in 1991. While teaching MFA students, I found Flusser’s The Shape of Things, a collection of essays on design, to be extremely helpful when seeking to define some basic terms (for instance, the word “design” itself). But in my own work considering our technologically mediated world, I found 1983’s Towards of Philosophy of Photography a critical read.

In the book (at 94 pages, it feels more like a long essay), Flusser uses his familiar footnote- and citation-less conversational prose to present “an attempt to sum up the essential quality of photography” (76). Of most use to us here is the theorist’s apparatus, a conceptualization of the power programmed into a consumer device (e.g., a camera) by the individuals who design, build, sell, and distribute the technology. Of those who program the apparatus, Flusser writes that “their intention is not to change the world but to change the meaning of the world” (25). Photographers, under the impression that they are controlling the camera through its various settings and functions, are actually falling in line to the predetermined routines determined by the apparatus’s programmers. As an artist and educator, I’m always looking for ways to best elucidate Flusser’s apparatus concept, especially through “real world” examples. Earlier this month, I had the privilege of visiting a conference in which the apparatus and its programmers were an ever-present theme.

Started in 2012 as a Kickstarter project, XOXO Festival is billed as “an experimental festival celebrating independent artists who work on the internet.” Each year, festival co-founder and speaker-curator, Andy Baio, invites an eclectic group of  YouTubers, podcasters, game designers, comedians, and more to speak to a crowd that, this year, reached over 1,000 strong. The conference, which takes place in Portland, Oregon, can feel almost too zeitgeisty at times (the food truck featuring pajama-laden servers dispensing cereal was, to its credit, quite popular), but the conspicuous lack of corporate logos and startup slinging pitch-men makes it harder to admit I was ever jealous of those who attended SXSW when I was stuck at home.

That’s not to say that those who spoke at the most recent festival are not busy thinking about money, intellectual property, contracts, freelance rates, and all of the other financially-focused stresses that “internet creators” face. On the contrary, some of the most powerful presentations were from artists like Gaby Dunn, comedian and YouTuber, whose project, “Just Between Us”, may lose all ad revenue going forward due to a subject-matter which YouTube might deem “non-advertising-friendly content”—this, after Dunn is already dealing with her previous employer, BuzzFeed, continuing to use her likeness in promotional and site material after she left because her contract stated she could not do any non-BuzzFeed-related work. Later in the day, cartoonist David Rees showed slide after slide detailing his freelance revenue sources over the past decade. The next morning, we heard from Esra’a Al Shafei, Bahraini civil rights advocate building platforms for voices of the underrepresented.

In recent years, it has percolated into popular culture that the devices and services we depend on daily may not be nearly as mystical as the marketing and hype surrounding them would have us believe. See, for example, the “there is no cloud, just someone else’s computer” trope, or the decidedly more somber tales of suicide out of the factories in which human beings assemble our phones under inhumane conditions. These are, in effect, evidence of the apparatus at work, changing the meaning of our world through the programming of our tools.

XOXO stood as a rare opportunity for those inside the apparatus to share their experiences. At this conference, you were constantly reminded that “the internet” is not just a bunch of “someone else’s computers” or even just rows of cabinets in a warehouse in North Carolina or Washington State. The internet apparatus, at the risk of sounding like a Stanley Greenberg screenplay, is people. Even as someone who has developed plenty of work for the web, hearing from those who have engaged in meaningful relationship-building, power struggles, self-exploration, and even just a bunch of tomfoolery online felt like blinders were being removed and I could see the power relationships that had been present all along.

Flusser—as oversimplified as the apparatus may seem—provides an accessible and apt introduction to power dynamics in our technologically mediated world. The apparatus speaks to a programming, but doesn’t force us to consider a top or bottom, an above or below. This is extremely helpful when the entropic nature of forces of influence within the creative industries (and the rhetoric therein) confuse us to the point of believing we are the ones in charge of our “user generated content”, our “online selves”, our “personal brands”, etc.

The founders and organizers of XOXO have already promised a hiatus in 2017 and are unsure if the event will ever return, so I feel fortunate to have attended even one of the conferences. For now, I hope “online creators” can use the community built around the festival and its inevitable off-shoots to keep reminding one another that the apparatus is a heavily programmed force. At the end of Towards A Philosophy, Flusser argues that the apparatus might be counter-programmed—that we might be able to figure out ways to use it that break the prescriptions of the programmer. I can’t say I see that as a distinct possibility, at least not within our current landscape. But five years’ worth of healthy audiences and insightful presenters, all working in spite of the apparatus, is perhaps a glimmer of hope.

Gabi Schaffzin is a PhD student in Visual Arts at the University of California, San Diego. He is rarely this optimistic, made evident by his Twitter timeline or website.

 

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Warning: Major spoilers for Mr. Robot (through s02e06) follow.

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In the season 2 premier of Mr. Robot on USA Network, we learn that our protagonist, Elliot, has been keeping a journal. The explanation he gives his therapist, Krista, is that “It’s the only way to keep my program running like it’s supposed to.” That is, Elliot’s journal is one element of a strict regimen meant to keep his life in order and his demons at bay—in particular, the chimeric vision of his late father, a representation of Elliot’s anarchic side, responsible for triggering the cataclysmic “5/9 hack”. The practice is a noted technique in controlling schizophrenic episodes, though, ultimately for Elliot, it proves unsuccessful and Mr. Robot makes regular visits.

Self-tracking as a means to “healing” oneself is by no means relegated to the clinically diagnosed and, despite its often-qualitative output, is a popular tool used by the quantified-self movement. Characterized today by a plethora of commercial devices—from the step-counting FitBit to the calorie estimating SmartPlate and well beyond (in features, price, and absurdity)—the quantified-self movement is built upon the ethos that the neoliberal self-governed body will find “self knowledge through numbers”. As has been documented many times on Cyborgology, the self knowledge advertised by QS members and their celebrated gadgetry comes at the risk of one’s personal data being exploited for commercial motives. As for our hero, while on an Adderall-fused fit of rage against the church and all its promises, Elliot drops his journal in the trash, where it is picked up and given to Ray, Elliot’s neighbor who is looking for some tech help.

When Ray reads Elliot’s journal, he finds the hook with which to relate to Elliot by sharing tales of his own demons. He effectively uses Elliot’s own self-tracking data to sell Elliot on helping him. Of course, Ray’s motives are far more nefarious than just help with “computers”; his Tor-based market deals in all sorts of contraband. Of this, Elliot is unaware, but he begins to trust Ray and helps. When he steps too far into Ray’s business, however, Ray’s henchmen pummel Elliot into a near-death unconsciousness. This, then, is where we finally see Elliot ready to come to terms with his demon: Mr. Robot provides Elliot with a sitcom-world fantasy during which he can recover and avoid feeling the physical pain of wounds handed to him by Ray’s crew.

This is the Deleuzian Body Without Organs—an extreme state wherein rhythms and intensities not available in the anatomical body provide access to a plane of immanence. From A Thousand Plateaus: “The BwO: it is already under way the moment the body has had enough of organs and wants to slough them off, or loses them…The schizo body, waging its own active internal struggle against the organs, at the price of catatonia” (150). In the beginning of the season, as Elliot describes his regimen, he emphasizes his wish to control his life and keep Mr. Robot out of it. But his efforts backfire and his own body gives way to catatonic state—a performance, choreographed by Mr. Robot himself, one that saves his life.

Are we, then, to see the quantified-self as inhibiting any chance for Deleuzian immanence or seeking those rhythms and intensities? Well, yes. But before continuing, I’d like to suggest that the individuals building the quantifed-self world—the designers, developers, marketers, investors, and others making commonplace the dreams of self-trackers everywhere—might be likened to the philosopher Elaine Scarry’s “torturers” as they turn a feeling or condition into something seen or heard, make it real, and take advantage of its apparent state. In her 1985 The Body in Pain, she writes:

If the felt-attributes of pain are (through one means of verbal objectification or another) lifted into the visible world, and if the referent for these now objectified attributes is understood to be the human body, then the sentient fact of the person’s suffering will become knowable to the second person (13).

These torturers translate the intangible into the tangible, forcing its reconstruction in a purely visible form, giving us reason to doubt when a visualization may not adequately represent, to treat when a threshold is misplaced. But both the act of tracking and the output of the devices comfort us and so we are willing to share our data and open ourselves to the kind of pain our torturers wish to inflict. Per Scarry, just like the quantified-self, “Torture systematically prevents the prisoner from being the agent of anything and simultaneously pretends that he is the agent of some things” (47).

I do not wish to erase the struggles of those with pathologized mental conditions. Instead, I hope to use Elliot’s story as a means to recognize the quantified-self’s dangers, beyond privacy or accuracy issues. In The Body in Pain, Scarry offers that we might move beyond the destructive forces of war and torture through acts of creation. That is, imagination—her counter-force to pain—will help us find meaning in experiences and objects. This imagination, it seems, once activated, will be simultaneously utilized and served by the Body Without Organs as we sense the disorganized and intense realities which may end up protecting us.

Gabi Schaffzin is pursuing his PhD in Art History with an Art Practice concentration at the University of California San Diego. His art and research consider the visual representation of pain and illness in a technologically mediated world dominated by a privileging of data over all else. You can see the emerging dialog between his research and artistic practice—much of which draws on the imagery and rhetoric of advertising and product design—at utopia-dystopia.com. He’s on Twitter as @GabiSchaffzin.