Tuesday, December 21, 2010

New problems of internet governance

As Ned Rosster (2009: 37) argues in a study of e-waste industries in Southern China,

In the case of the global logistics industries, the rise of secondary resource flows accompanying the economy of electronic waste is coextensive with the production of non-governable subjects and spaces. I suggest that the relation between these entities constitutes new regional formations that hold a range of implications for biopolitical technologies of control.

Writing in the same publication, one of the editors notes

The idea of nature as an aesthetic and normative exteriority appears to offer a safe position of ethico-epistemological privilege from which to condemn various aspects of information-technological modernization. But it is perhaps only by acknowledging that the contradictory consequences of the spread of electronics cannot be easily mapped onto an antagonism of nature versus technology that the idea of network ecologies becomes comprehensible (Zehle 2009: 4).

The non-governable of nature is then produced in the contemporary world as a network effect: this would explain why ecologies and networks are employed as metaphors in systems analysis and environmental science alike. Regionality might suggest a partition of the world between the urban or nega-urban and the preserved and conserved nature park, or at least the gap between lanes on the highway where wildflowers bloom and which in New Zealand is called 'the nature strip'. But it must also evoke divisions, especially the division of labour, a network form which predates and founds digital network logic. The ecology of the poor emerges, as pointed out above, in the interstices of networks: by rail tracks, under the fences of factories, on perilous slopes where gullies carve a path of green into the city. The term 'pristine' which is almost invariably attached to the word 'wilderness' does not recognise the evolutionary genius of organic life,human or otherwise, that proliferates between paving stones and in the shit-piles of the slum. Rodents, insects, amoeba and bacteria do not usually figure in the cartography of the megacities' settlement with natural phenomena, yet they are as integral as urban foxes or the uncanny spectacle of zoo animals.

The emergence instead of 'ungovernable subjectivities' and the consequent need for a biopolitical management of material, energetic and informatic flows which Rossiter points us to, should evoke subjectivities which are no longer purely human. Some of these have been familiar to sociology since its birth: the crowd, the tribe, the family and the factory. In contemporary media formations, corporations constitute actually existing cyborgs comprising complex technical assemblages onto which are plugged, Matrix-like, the human biochips on which they feed. Increasingly, the meta-assemblage which is the megacity requires a third term, the organic life which seeps in, as aesthetic (pets, gardens) , as functional (parks, waterfronts) but also as Nigel Clark suggests as the ungoverned and unwanted weeds, pests and bugs which contaminate the ostensibly clean distinctions between parts (Clark 2000). In a network, the divisions are also media of translation between nodes, human, technical and organic. Smart objects, the internet of things is one response to this problematic explosion of unexpected subjectivities: indeed, a biopolitical recognition that our devices have indeed evolved a life of their own.

Problems with Bennett's Vibrant Matter

In the actor-network perspective adopted and updated by Jane Bennett, electricity grid failures in megacities – she discusses the Northeastern blackout affecting the Boston-New York and Great Lakes conurbations in August 2003 – can be traced to the chaotic behaviour of electrical flows in complex grids. Like Virilio (2007), she sees the very existence of the power grid as the intimation of its collapse (Bennett 2010: 27), and argues that the energy trading corporation on whose lines the disaster began, FirstEnergy, was not responsible for what happened, suggesting that humans should not be regarded as privileged by their capacity for action apart from 'the order of material nature'. Instead, comparing her attitude to that of FirstEnergy's board, Bennett argues that 'Autonomy and strong responsibility seem to me to be empirically false, and thus their invocation seems tinged with injustice . . . individuals [are] simply incapable of bearing full responsibility for their effects' (Bennet 2010: 28). While undoubtedly naïve claims of causality, and any claim to individualism, are unhelpful in the context of electric power outages, or indeed any network situation, it is equally naïve to omit the interconnection of this network with another, the deregulated energy market of the USA in the 2000s.

It is illuminating to compare the 2003 blackout with another case of megacity outage in the USA. The now shamed Enron corporation had used campaign funds to pressure California legislators to deregulate the state's energy market. Before deregulation, there had been only one serious rolling blackout: from the deregulation of December 200 to its re-regulation in June 2001, there were 38 (Public Citizen 2002). In August that year, Enron share price began to tumble, resulting in its filing for bankruptcy in November. There is no clear connection between the collapses of California's energy market and that of Enron. It is true however that ascribing the collapse of both to human greed, is inadequate. Equally, however, Bennett is correct in saying that the electrical network, the medium through which these crises occurred, provided the affordances necessary to drive them into collapse. The collapse, however, was driven by changing network goals. Missing in Bennett's analysis is the interaction between two systems, the public utility and the market. It is this interaction which created the new network behaviours which caused the crises (Healy and Palepu 2003; see also Fox 2003, Eichenwald 2005)). FirstEnergy, like Enron close to the Bush administration (CEO, H. Peter Burg had a seat on Bush's energy transition team), had quite a record. It owns GPU, the New Jersey generating company which ran Three Mile Island, and in February 2002 had its own Davis-Besse reactor in Ohio shut down at the brink of another nuclear disaster. The investigation into the blackout found FirstEnergy at the heart of the four causes (a term they find suitably problematic) of the disaster: FE's systemic failure to address problems in its network, specifically of voltage levels; its inadequate situational awareness; its failure to manage trees under its powerlines; and persuading its public oversight body not to inspect its systems and practices . While it is difficult to demonstrate that FirstEnergy was shifting power in and out of the region affected by the blackout, as Enron had done in California, the combination of software bugs and a flashover caused by overheating powerlines sparking against untrimmed trees do demonstrate the argument that when share price is the only value, energy companies abandon safe, clean and reliable supply (Bratton 2002).

This is not an example of emergent properties in a chaotic network: it clearly arises when one value – .the provision of light – conflicts with another – the extraction of profit, in the Californian instance not from retail sale but from speculative trading in real-time energy futures, in the North eastern from taking immediate profit even at the expense of the long-term profitability or even feasibility of the operation. These outcomes of clashes betwen service and profiot are even more visible in the developing world. Thus in Lagos under auspices of the World Bank and IMF during the Babangida régime in the 1980s, the national electricity provider was privatised at knock-down prices, enriching the elite while discouraging investment in the service. The absence of public utilities leads to widespread tapping into private electrical lines, resulting in widespread blackouts and frequent fires (Packer 2006: 6-7). According to Francisco Bolaji Abosede, Lagos Commissioner for Town Planning and Urbanisation, 'By 2015 Lagos will be the third largest city in the world but it has less infrastructure than any of the world’s other largest cities' (IRIN 2006). The National Electric Power Authority (NEPA), recently renamed the Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN), is accused of long-standing corruption. The World Bank has however provided 100 million dollars to aid in its privatisation, despite vigorous opposition from power unions and others. NEPA was also signatory to a contract with Enron which locked it into a guaranteed purchasing agreement that had become unsustainable by 2005. Unions implied that Enron's successor, AES, was not supplying the agreed amounts of power, and the whole contract was embroiled in a legal battle alongside the political batte over splitting NEPA into eleven smaller companies prior to privatisation and deregulation (Hall 2006: 12). As Bennett suggests, such intricate networks are subject to chaotic storms and sudden, violent collapse; but such emergent behaviours cannot be understood apart from the political economy of capital, and the specific ideologies of neo-liberalism that power them

There's a permanent risk that ANT retains Latour's patrician aloofness towards political engagement The full argument is in a piece submitted to the NEP volume of Theory Culture and Society

Thursday, December 9, 2010


How much more is there to add? The US State Department says Wikileaks is 'putting lives at risk', but I don't recall Assange invading Iraq or placing a standing army in Afghanistan. Columnists calling for his asassination are acting illegally and might be incarcerated in a different society. Like anti-abortionists committing murder, the lack of a sense of irony permits all sorts of horrors. Meanwhile the US prepares to host World Press Freedom Day while pressuring eBay and Amazon to stop hosting Wikileaks and the credit card monopolists and their only competitor (established on the principle that monopolies would always permit exactly this kind of abuse) PayPal (now property of eBay) to stop handling donations.

The sad thing is that this isn't going to stop anything. Quite apart from the denial of service attacks on mastercard etc, the hacker community is preparimg for distributed serving. Far less easy to stop. But also far less obviously reliable. Now anyone hosting a bunch of files can potentially get in and alter a name or a date or a place. The capacity for massive and this time really destructive (dis)information is huge. OIf they manage to lock up the wind, they will release the whirlwind. It is not only shameful, it is stupid.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

"Mouse events in Java"

The phrase threw me entirely. It appeared as a book title or genre: I imagined a community of scholars, perhaps zoologists and ethologists, devoting their lives to transcribing the worlds of small rodents on that exotic Indonesian island beloved of Gertz. Even when I realised that the real object of study was human-computer interface design, specifically scripting mouse-clicks in the computer language Java, the whimsy didn't wholly evaporate. The smile it brought, like so much humour, derived from the mismatch of two discursive universes. It also demonstrates a simple truth: that increasing specialisation leads us away from a common speech towards increasingly fragmented dialects, each associated with an individual discipline, each surrounded by the rituals and enclosures of institutions, and the power of institutional discourses to create and define orders of truth. It didn't help that the institution was not exclusively that of HCI design, but of cultural theory, where translations of Alain Badiou (2006) have endowed the word 'event' with a host of new meanings. One of those concerns the decreasingly likelihood that events will actually occur.

During 2009 and 2010, a number of countries returned either hung parliaments or governments without sufficient mandate to i9ntroduce major change. The joke going round was that the people had spoken but that it would take some time to find out what they'd said. Actually they had said something very clearly: no change. Campaigns based on vilification and fear, on accusations that the other party would do terrible things, produced a state of anxiety where people voted for nothing to happen. In many respects this was the desired outcome of at least some players. There would be no reform to financial markets in the wake of the 2008 crash. It would be extremely difficult to reform medical provision. The question of the event occurs however not only in special states of impasse such as this. It occurs as the question whether it is possible to change at all. It is a truism by now that we can far more easily imagine the extinction of life on Earth than we can a change in capitalist consumerism. Those who do imagine such a change imagine that it must be effected through the economic sticks and carrots of market mechanisms like emission trading schemes and carbon taxes. In place of public debate on how we are supposed to live, they propose no change: only the use of the existing system of markets (or technical innovation) to resolve the current crisis. Politics is in the sense of public debate over values is no longer conducted at all: the management of desire through pubic relations and fiscal instruments has taken the place of discussions concerning what constitutes the good life, and how we are to achieve it. This reduction of political life to population management is what makes the event so rare and, in Badiou's philosophy, so precioous. Yet as the authors of a recent activist text argue, the problem with Badiou's events is that they all seem to be in the past (Papadopoulos et al 2008). The question of new media dynamics, when posed in the historically radical context of media studies, becomes the question "How are we to encourage the creation of events?" How are we to turn the actualities of our lives into the potentialities of our futures? How are we, in fact, to create a future for ourselves that is in any sense worthy of the name 'future', that is, something which is other than a mere continuation of the present?

If we are men and not mice, or if we are humans who are ready to 'become mouse', we may yet find ways to make events occur again -- in complex digital networks like those powered by Java, or in the complex social centres of emergent polities like Indonesia. New meamnings for old in the mouse events in java.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Getting specific about medium specificity

Mostly when we say "medium" we mean something of a pretty high order of complexity: TV, say. Or, saints preserve us, 'digital' (I once wrote a book called Digital Aesthetics: hubris, to believe that there was only one aesthetics for the whole digital realm). These media are constructs, not just feats of engineering but imaginary engines, imaginary in that we ascribe to them a coherence they do not actually possess. Convergence is the tip of the iceberg: so many elements which comprise the digital (and TV) are shared with other media. Take lens technologies for example. There are no analog or digital lenses.

Each medium is already a dozen technologies arranged in a system. To label one assemblage “photography” is almost silly: we have to look a) at the elements from which it is composed and b) the commonalities it has with other media. The term ‘medium’ would be better reserved for, say, a type of screen. And then we might be able to find some new results: coherent light operating in scientific instrumentation, fibre optics and a Jean-Michel Jarre lightshow has certain common characteristics but we rarely understand laser as a free-standing medium like print – and yet the commonalities are significant, as are continuities with pre-laser techniques for disciplining light waves.

(thanks to Kris Cannon for sparking this thought)

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Body at Work

As promised this afternoon, slides from a lecture on the labouring body for Elizabeth Presa's course on the Poetics of the Body ae available on my slideshare. The music was from Ustad Vilayat Khan, an evening raga; The Prisonnaires' version of Po' Lazarus from the soundtrack to O Brother Where Art Thou, Captain Beefheart with Ry Cooder doing Hard Working Man from the soundtrack to Paul Schrader's film Blue Collar, and The Chemical Brothers, music : response

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Imitation of Life, Truth and the Turing Test

Douglas Sirk's 1959 film opens when two young widows, one white one black, meet with their daughters. Lora prefers her career as an actress to her daughter Suzie or her lover. Her profession is an imitation. Her new best friend Annie is an Aunt Jemima who sacrifices her own welfare become Lora's housekeeper and to raise Lora's daughter. Her own daughter Sarah-Jane longs to be white, passes as white. Love interest Steve is a photographer whose images are just images (in the opening scene he appears to be trying to forge Weegee's famous 1937 shot of crowds on the beach at Coney Island). He is the object of a teenage crush from Lora's daughter. The whole thing is recounted in startling Technicolor, then as now a byword for gaudy and fraudulent colour.

John Gavin, who plays Steve the love interest, was half Mexican but passes here as authentically American, all-American. He would in later life be appointed ambassador to Mexico by another actor, Ronald Reagan, of whose presidency Gil Scott Heron would sing "This ain't really a life, ain't nothing but a movie". The real-life daughter of Lana Turner, who plays Lora, killed Turner's lover, though the inquest found she acted in self-defense, to the incredulity of Hollywood insiders and conspiracy nuts ever since. Turner herself had been, only a few years earlier, the target of a vitriolic attack by DH Lawrence on the faux sexuality of the 'sweater-girl'. All characters in the film are played by people who are not the people we see on the screen. Sirk's Brechtian heritage (as Detlef Sierck he was involved in the political theatre of Weimar) is all over their stilted performances, and the distances between them, filled with the things which fill up the spaces in which the characters' lives are not lived.

The problems only begin here. The soi-disant "truth" is that Sarah-Jane "is" black; and that Lora should have married Steve, so preventing the ghastly crush her daughter has on him. That is, the only available truth which they imitate is that of race and the Oedipal family. (That Annie and Lora are both widows suggests the Oedipal role of the dead father; and the suspicion that the same man might have fathered both daughters . . . ). But the finale at Annie funeral reveals that the only Truth is Death, and that truth is fatal. Except that we survive, weeping in the audience: we for whom the entire charade has been played out experience an imitation of emotion. And of course there is no Death, only a staged funeral with no body in the coffin. And we know it (je sais mais quand même): the only available truth is a disavowal, merely a Romantic willing suspension of disbelief, a conspiracy to act as if there were a truth, veiled underneath the appearances, underneath the ideologies. Truth is a projection, one we project as much as the cinematic apparatus does.

Nine years before Sirk's film's release, Alan Turing set out the terms of the Turing test. An interrogator in a room separated from a machine and a person asks questions, the answers to which are to prove which of the two unseen competitors is human and which a machine. In the cinema there is nothing behind the screen, only a loudspeaker. Not even a voice. Not even a recording of a voice, which is on the optical soundtrack up in the projection booth over our heads and behind our backs. The richness of this hall of mirrors and the cynical reading of the melodrama of manners that it reflects persuades us that an (authorial) intelligence inhabits it. Sadly it is also a remake - of a 1934 film by John Stahl.

In Imitation of Life, all the humans alive and dead, onscreen and in the auditorium, fail the Turing test, and only the filmic machine passes.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Internet filtering

It is the job of governments to distrust their citizens, and the job of citizens to distrust their governments. This state of armed détente is acted out in the history of public service broadcasting: if unpopular, elitist; if popular, undeserving of subsidy. The market loathes public service and will not tolerate public good arguments: the last thing neo-liberalism wants is an informed citizenship, just as consumer capital could not survive the ideally informed consumer it presents as its foundation. Network communications is worse for governments than public broadcasting: the more democratic the medium, the more brutal the censorship. Internet filtering is only partly a dispay of redundant power. It also ensures that the rump of the free internet pre-dot.com crash is safely castigated. Protecting the innocent from evil is an ideological mask for the true achievement of filtering: quelling the discussion about what constitutes the good life. Teaching the many to fear is integral to contemporary representative politics. The fear engendered by filters is enough to make them effective.

(The filtered have learnt to exploit the same emotional turmoil as the advertising and marketing industries: to control desire and deflect it towards useless and unpleasant products. If we refuse the one, logically we should also refuse the other. Logic however has little to do with politics, or censorship.)

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Communion as the end of ethics

Where communication appears in discussions of ethics, it is either as a problem or an instrument. In Susan Sontag's moving work on images of torture, for example, communication is a means for extending the suffering of victims, while for Jürgen Habermas, communication is a means towards the esteblishment of values and norms. Of the two, the position which sees communication as an exercise of power is the most persuasive: there is no question that in a universe of flow, somehow communication has ended up in the hands of the few: ammassed, delayed, detoured, and used as a weapon in information warfare, propaganda, and as both Sontag and Elaine Scarry argue, as an instrument of torture. The sad truth of Habermas' more utopian vision is that communicative agreement between free and equal subjects can result in values and norms which are anything but utopian. Although Arendt uses the case of the Eichman trial to demonstrate the weaknes of kant's categorical imperative, her thesis of 'the banality of evil' is in the end an emprical argument against the idea that discussion among peers will always result in rational results: here, the discussion among ome of the most highly educated populations in Europe resulted in general agreement to the terms of the Final Solution. Something is wrong.

A eudaimonist perspective, deriving from one of the oldest European staements on ethics, Aristotle's Nichomachaean Ehics. In Aristotle (Book 10, Chapter 8), the highest good is the life of the mind: the moment at which we are most godlike, and which as 'Contemplative Soeculation', points both backwards and forwards in time. It is clear today that Aristotle needs to be adjusted in one crucial aspect. The life of the mind can no longer be understood as the life of one brain trapped inside a bone box on the top of the hum,an frame. In what we share with the aimals, and in what we share – throug language and all the other media which form the vehicles of thought – with other human beings, the life of the mind is an entriely collective entreprise: what recent writers refer to as the intellectual commons. Yet here Hardt and Negri are as misled as habermas. The commons is no more an instrument for the realisation of something else than is rational communication. From a eudaimonst persp[ective, communication itself is the Good. It remains to be seen why, if this is the case, communication regularly turns out to be evil, in the cases investigated by Arendt and by Scarry and Sontag. At stake is the nature and definition of 'communication'

Thus far in human history, political economy has served to parcel out scarce resources on the basis of wealth and power, in order to produce and reproduce differential access to the commons of communication. That concentration is no longer necessary. There is enough to go round. There has been enough food, water, shelter, fuel and knowledge to go round for over a hundred years. But the falling rate of profit has ensured that throughout that period, more and more demands for more and more consumption has been necessary to preserve the privilege of the ruling class. Commodification of all sorts of human wants are no longer useful: this is the case with knowledge and communication, for which it is also true that the atomisation of knowledge into data and information is no longer productive. Only the falling rate of profit leads to intellectual property right sin knowledge, the rent-charging regime which poisons the very well-springs of the innovation process it pretends to defend. We do not contemplate or speculate about the Good, because we are already presented with the goods - with commodity consumption as the only path to enjoyment. These are the pleasures which Aristotle analyses before making his final eudaimonist step from pleasures to happiness.

For Aristotle, 'contemplative specualation' fails a final test of wholeness because (1) it dep[ends on a sufficiency of the means of life (including the means of liberality: enough to give away) and (2) it is incapable of persuading, through its own media -– rhetoric for him, mass or personalised media for us – the mass of people to accept it as doctrine. In answer to (2), the masses are devoted to the pursuit of pleasures because they do not possess them, so that, in answer to (1), they do not have those underpinning sufficiencies wituout which happiness is inaccessible. Therefore the purpose of political life – and here we might properly say the purpose of communication – is to provide those pleasures which enable happiness – comntemplation and speculation. What else is intended by Marx's 'Realm of Freedom' (Capital III 820; [Ch 48]) - a realm which begins to be possible with the shortening of the working day.

Neither action nor creation, in Aristotle Contemplative Speculation is not restricted to rationality but includes sensory and emotional life. This consideration should indicate the weakness of his assertion that such happiness escapes non-human creatures: rationality is not the sole copnstituent of happiness, which is therefore not reserved only for the rational animal. Lie his comparison with the gods, the distinction form the animals no longer persuades us. Similarly in Marx, while we take from him the idea of 'socialised man', we part company over the false choice between ruling or being ruled over by nature. Our happiness depends on collectivity, connectivity, and therefore on extending our relations from the means of production (techne) to the physical world in which our pleasures place us as fully physical beings. Communication is not a means to ecotopia: it is ecotopia.

Yet as we have seen communication is in itself an overdetermined, purposive, not to say instrumental concept. We need to revise what weunderstand by it. It ight be possible to speak of true and false communication (as we might of true and false hope - of 'hope' for a win on the Lottery as opposed to hope for a just, open, happy world). Ontologically, mediation is the flow of matter and energuy, which both physical law and human instinct forms into order through negentropic processes. It is these processes which, as Shannon and Weaver showed in the eartliest days of information theory, construct order. yet they too easily construct communication as orders given and obeyed. This is the 'false' communication, yet it is the historical process through which we pass, and which we cannot gainsay or rescind. Perhaps the term we need is something else, somehting of the commons, such as communion (I owe the term to Rafael Lozano-Hemmer), to distinguish from the command-and-control ethic of communications. From universal mediation, and its entropic characteristic, through the negentropic but equally catastrophic command regime of communication, we move towards a eudaimonist utopia of communion, a term which has the added benefit of centuries of usage in which communion with nature, and indeed with the divine, has been part of its meaning. Communion is the goal itself, not a means to anything else. We seek justice,, health, food, drink, shelter. clothing and a modicum of order so that we can be happy communing beyond the artifices of wealth, power, species and phyla.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

3 Theses on black and white

Thesis One:
that the opoposite of black is white: a surface which reflects all wavelengths equaly, as a black surface absorbs them all. When an imaginary pure black surface absorbs all wavelengths, it annihilates differences between them. And so does an imaginarly pure white, subordinating all wavelengths to its own purity. Thus there is not so much difference between white and black as we might suppose: both draw difference into unity.

Thesis Two:
the opposite of black is not white but light. Against the darkness in which our eyes can perceive nothing, there is the light in which they do. But light, the purest, brightest light, like darkness, blinds, as the desert sun does. The closer it comes to absolute, the more light burns out the rods and cones, maculates the seeing eye with afterimages, in extremis takes sight away permanently, as it has for so many observers of solar phenomena. Blinding, and the maculation of vision, is common to absoulte darkness and absolute light, just as reduction to unity is common to absolute black and absolute white. Here too there is no true opposition.

Thesis Three:
the opposite of black is not white but a mirror reflection, which reflects each wavelength in its own discrete form. Against black, we would set the differentiating forms of natural as well as manufactured mirrors – rivers and streams, wet rocks, oil shimmering on puddles – as indeed we might include those natural and manufactured forms of prism which split the light into rainbows, as in the spray of waterfalls and surf. Against black's unity, and against its blinding of vision, we might cast as its dialactical pair the shattering and splintering of light, its endless multiplication.

Vector Politics and the Aesthetics of Disappearance

From a chapter drafted for John Armitage (ed) Virilio Now

To build a new future is the greatest of challenges. When Virilio forces us to look into the abyss of final catastrophe, he makes us consider not only what is at stake, but how we might address it. In his pioneering work on ecological politics he demonstrates how much depends on how we see ourselves in relatiuon to the world. Today, as the terrains of 'immaterial labour' and the physical infrastructure of the network coincide, Virilio, in common with feminist phenomenologists of digital media like N. Katherine Hayles (1999), Margaret Morse (1998) and Michelle White (2002), argues against the mind-body split that informs the cyber-visionary desire to leave behind the crumpled, painful 'meat' of the body. Instead, Virilio argues, we have to understand that the general accident is not just a technological flaw, as in his insight that the inventions of the train, the airplane, nuclear power, internet and bio-engineering are always simultaneously the invention of the train crash, the plane wreck, meltdown, information crash and genetic time-bomb. The condition is however more general and formative than that: Virilio notes that 'the production of any 'substance' is simultaneously the production of a typical accident (Virilio 1993: 212). As Jussi Parikka observes of this passage, 'An accident . . . is not in this context intended to mean the opposite of absolute and neccessary, as Aristotelian metaphysics has maintained. Instead, accidents are an inherent part of an entity' (Parikka 2007: 4). This might recall Adorno's praise of disappointment, and perhaps also signal the danger attendant on construing the future not as risk management but as unknowable other. In other words, Virilio points us towards an aesthetics of failure: of the inherent risk that any object – and phenomenologically therefore any subject – runs of failing to continue to be. It comes down then to a duty of care, for the planet, and consequently therefore also for the people who inhabit it. It seems then that Virilio is correct: a putative vectoral network, one that is not self-identical, that evolves without notice, that plunges into accident and disappointment, and in which machines have as much say as humans is a terrifying risk. But it may also be the only way to escape the stifling grid of destruction which is the military, economic, political and cultural standoff of a present which denies hope to the mass of humanity and the planet itself.

Friday, March 5, 2010

DECE and the cloud

The cloud adds mobility and interactivity to thin client computing, making it more energy and resource efficient to maintain than expensive software and document libraries on personal hard-drives. In theory at least, we should all be able to access a single copy of a book or movie, dramatically reducing the spiralling costs of proliferating, transporting and storing them locally. Even at high bandwidth, streaming is cheaper than downloading, and downloading media-rich files is the biggest drain on net resources.

Unfortunately, the cloud is also open to copyright, and in many respects makes it simpler. The recent DECE initiative shows why. A key problem has been the vast variety of formats and platforms on which consumers want to access movies, games, TV, sports and music, from tiny mobile phone screens to 1280 domestic high-definition and 3D. DECE, the Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem, provides a solution. With a membership including Adobe, Microsoft, Comcast, Lionsgate, NBC Universal, Netflix, Panasonic, Paramount, Sony, and \Warner Bros. alongside most of the major chip, home entertainment and mobile phone manufacturers, DECE is a one-stop shop for all formats. Servers will deliver streaming video in the appropriate codecs for any platform for a single license payment. Not quite a monopoly – Disney is holding out for its own KeyChest alternative, possibly in alliance with Apple (whose Steve Jobs is also Disney's largest shareholder thanks to his involvement in Pixar) – DECE removes the risks associated with ownership of hardcopies, entrenching the limitation on rights purchasers of video have compared to other goods. It also provides tracking of users' viewing habits for commercial onselling. As long as we remain entrenched in the individualist ethos of the old disciplinary capital, we will be concerned with privacy; only when we learn to mistrust the database economy of the network will we learn to question the crowdsourcing that DECE, in this sense like Google, commercialises.

The likely upshot? DECE is an attempt to counter an unusual phenomenon in file-sharing: even when free downloads like Radiohead's In Rainbows is available, interactors still prefer to use Limewire and BitTorrent. Free still outsells cheap, and anonymous still outbids tracked. Just as the IPv6 transition threatens the universal internet, so the cloud, while offering the platform capable of delivering a universal library, is likely to split the internet between legitimate and illegitimate distribution. Meanwhile the sheer volatility of the hardware market, reluctance to pay twice for the same product (the vinyl I bought in 1980), anger at badly designed DRM restrictions (like DVD regional formatting and smartphones tied to unpopular service suppliers), the pleasures of sharing among peers, and the threat of legislation allowing searches of hard discs will lead more people to store more media-rich files on more clouds. Result: increased storage and transmission demands, lower efficiency, more format wars and hacker escalations. Ideally the cloud should lead to greater efficiency, but in conditions of the struggle between market and network, it will not. In the process it may terminally damage the future of the internet.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

A couple of things I never knew about the Red One

The Red Corporation's Red One camera – the most widespread of high-def pro cameras – employs a Super-35mm CMOS chip which, through a structure employing amplification and a dedicated transistor for draining charge on every pixel, givies none of the smear and bloom or the noise of CCD cameras. At a notional 4.5K (4480x1920) resolution, this should be capable of the kind of accurate account of the optical scene that 35mm film has. But the RAW format data in CMOS is digitised in situ, rather than converted from charge to voltage at the chip and only subsequently converted to digital data as in CCD architectures. The result is that the latent image is inaccessible: the chip itself reduces the data by a factor of ten before it is even buffered in the cameras's hard drive.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Further notes on the history of invisibility

The characteristic cultural formation of the capitalist epoch was realism, and its characteristic visual form geometry, specifically the geometry of projection. This is the form of perspective, of cartography. Not primarily or exclusively illusionistic, realist projective geometry is about scale and dimensionality – making small things big, big things small, and round things flat.

By contrast, the fundamental cultural formation of the network era is the database, and its principle is no longer geometrical but arithmetic. The database is dimensionless: it has taken the logic of converting time into space (the graph, the calendar) and eradicated space as well. The database is decreasingly visible, hidden behind the screen displaying the results of a specific search. Thus the invisibility of database-driven sites to search engines.

The long journey from the dominance of hierarchic and semantic visual forms under feudalism has led to the layering of semantics under observation, and now under ubiquitous digital enumeration. The questions are whether this new form is so voracious it will consume the previous modes of visual culture; and whether this is a genuinely new form of political economy or merely the latest twist in the tail of capital.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Old and the New

Apple launch the iPad with fanfared agreements with publishers, and a buzz as to whether this will be the saving of the news and magazine trades. And they sign up with the DECE Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem, designed to harmonise digital rights management across multiplatform downloads using cloud servers. Old school IP corporate business. Google meanwhile use advertising revenue to support expensive, loss-making ventures like Books and YouTube so they can give away services in return for information. New school P2P network business.

January 2010: new decade in an old century

two black swans

two black swans westering at twilight

I looked up

lazy white-pinioned wing-strokes
, a herringbone of light

not only human, this passion for order, nor an instrument

An essay in Periodisation

Before all this began, cutting the long story short. there was the Sovereign, the alphabet and the manuscript.

In the era of the Nation, there was printing, the republic, discipline and capital version 1. In the era of the Market, photomechanical and broadcast media shared their diagram with representational democracy, biopolitical management of populations, and the globalisation of capital version 2. In the era of the network which is coming (and in many respects already here), telecommunications align with government by control (Deleuze) or protocol (Galloway). But we do not yet know what political or which economic forms are emerging. The choices would appear to be between Sassen's TAR (territory-authority-rights) model, and Hardt and Negri's multitude as polity, and Bauwens' peer-to-peer or a harder and deeper capital as economy.

Form of government, principle of power, and mode of economy are relatively autonomous, in the sense that they evolve according to their internal logics, but informed by relations with the other spheres. The media forms are slightly different, autonomous but at the same time integral to both the internal functioning of each sphere and the relations between them.

The ethics of "Don't be Evil"

In the matter of Google vs China, three players meet: Nation, Market and State. China sees the market as servant of the nation. The market sees nations as infrastructure, providing the legal and physical systems it needs to run. The network sees the market as a way of getting money to secure the free flow of information. Nations want to protect their people against these flows; markets want to control them. Networks want to extend the logic of "free" from free-from-worry (national goal) and free-to-compete (market goal) to free as in borderless and cashless: free as in flow, free as in beer.

Google doesn't embrace free beer, even though it dispenses it. It wants to be innocent.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Virtual History

Wriing history is made more difficult if we do not accept the axiom which opens Wittgenstein's Tractatus: "The world is all that is the case", or the recommendation he gives at the end, to throw away the ladder climbed in order to reach his conclusions. If the world is not given (the case) but a restless terrain of becoming and conflict, it is no longer possible to write its history as a map of certainties. And if on the other hand we cannot abstract certainty from flux, then we are condemned to climb repeatedly back down the ladder to sample once more both the contingency of the world and the emotional and perceptual turmoil "where all the ladders start / In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart" (Yeats). Theory differs from philosophy because it is premised on this repetitive return to a materiality which is never fully ascertainable. Materialism is an incomplete project because it cannot extrapolate an idea from the world without going once more back into the world to confirm the materiality of the idea. This does not mean that it fails; merely that it cannot claim the purity of philosophy's logic, or for that matter the apparent certainties of scientific data. Nor does it imply that no knowledge is possible. It means rather that theoretical knowledge is processual, tentative, falsifiable and dialectical, forged in the contradiction between formal rationality and the constantly reforming world.

Wittgenstein's 'world' is wholly actual; Bergson's fundamentally virtual. Materialist historiography understands that the actuality of the world at any moment is the result of previous virtual potentialities, and contains within it as many more. Kant recognised the contingency of this situation, the vast ocean of interacting elements producing humanly unforeseeable new states in and of the world. For Kant, reason is what separates us from that contingency and so permits us to be free. Materialist theory recognises that we who are subjects of knowledge are contingent; that the reason through which we know is contingent: and that our separation from the world, while perfectly actual, is also the result of previous contingencies. With that knowledge, we know both that we exist actually, but virtually too, in that we are constantly becoming other, and our ideas of reason and our relation with the world likewise. This makes writing history, especially the history of the media through which we know, represent and communicate with the world, significant not for what it tells us about the past, but for what we learn about our possible futures.

What we can speak about we must not pass over in silence.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Google in China

The gmail hack on dissidents is a sideshow. So is the censorhsip row.

The major story is the Aurora hack. Using a hole in Internet explorer (and possibly a similar one in Adobe Reader), the hackers, almost certainly guns for hire (maybe volunteers, probably operating out of China via taiwanese servers, and perhaps but still unproven working for an agency not a million miles from government), got into
Symantec (online security)
Juniper (routers and hardware security)
Rackspace (cloud computing -- tho seems to have been only used as a staging post, perhaps)
Adobe (who blogged that they'd been raided, admitted comprommised files, but may possibly have been of concern as a vehicle for the attack rather than a victim)
Dow Chemical
Northrop Grumman

And up to a total of 34, most of whom are staying quiet, very probably because a lot of them are defense contractors and security specialists.

US appointed a new 'cyber czar' recently: no sign of action - but in the House, Rep C Smith (Rep) is trying to reinvigorate the Global Online Freedom Act - look out for a new definition of 'axis of evil', this time based on property rights to information -- there's going to be big fallout in governance, esp now ICANN is no longer a US agency - the hack also used a DNS exploit which is ICANN's domain. China has been pushing for an end to the Internet Governance Forum and a move back to the national representation offered by the ITU. Now the US may well add its voice - in an ironic alliance.

Meanwhile, Google, entirely vulnerable as a corporation heading into the cloud big time, has managed a) to get the great press about standing up to censorship and defending human rights b) made Microsoft carry the can for the Aurora hack just when they are about to launch a rival cloud Docs application and c) divert attention from the fact that they just got stiffed in the biggest industrial espionage exploit of recent times.