Monday, April 4, 2011

Forecasting the Seminar Paper

TITLE: "(Dis)Locating Thought: The Graphic Ontology of World Browsers"

The first part of title names a quintessential experience of the media in question, much like the title of a short essay by Jenny Edbauer Rice -- "Overhearing: The Intimate Life of Cell Phones."  Furthermore, like Edbauer Rice's "Overhearing," "(Dis)Locating Thought" serves as a theoretical departure point: the work of the essay is to unpack the rhetorical or grammatological implications of the phrase.  In my case, the phrase suggests from the outset that, by making it possible to "geotag" thoughts (or, more precisely, writing) to specific GPS-enabled locations, the emergent genre of smartphone apps known as world browsers actually disrupt the conventional, literate experience of thought.  While I do not mean to claim that everyone experiences thought in exactly the same manner, we clearly share the notion that thinking is typically a silent meditation or dialogue with one's self, located in the brain.  An icon of philosophy and the act of thinking, Auguste Rodin's 1902 sculpture The Thinker -- a highly regarded masterpiece of Western art -- depicts precisely this image of thought (as do each of its appropriations):

A powerful twenty-first century appropriation of The Thinker would be to place a smartphone into the figure's bottom hand.  As smartphones rapidly gain popularity, they seem ever increasingly to enter into the scenes of thought in everyday life.  Indeed, industry experts predict that in five years people will turn to smartphones for internet access more often than desktops or laptops.  Given this turn toward "small tech," it makes sense to examine internet applications, like world browsers, that are designed around the specific affordances of mobile hardware, such as augmented reality, GPS, and QR coding.

World browsers exemplify a new way of moving through information.  My essay, however, will not just move from one example app to the next; my aim is to emphasize the significance of this emerging genre in terms of the history and theory of writing.  To that end, the structure of my essay is guided by another observation about world browsers: world browsers bring together an array of different hardware and software, thus creating a unique constellation among media that, until now, have been developed and used apart from one another.  

STRUCTURE: After a 3-4 page introduction, the rest of the essay will be broken into six sections, which will each be about 2-3 pages.  Each of these sections will focus on a prior media that world browsers mobilize (pun intended); I will reference concepts advanced by scholars writing about that media before the advent of world browsers, using (and reworking) those concepts as a means to theorize the rhetorical/grammatological implications of world browsing.  At this point, I'm pretty settled on the following six sections:

1. Cell Phones
2. Web Browsers & Search Engines
3. Web 2.0 Platforms
4. Locative Media Art
5. Augmented Reality
6. Iconic Photojournalism

Monday, March 21, 2011

Democracy as a Way of Seeing (via Photojournalism)

In concluding No Caption Needed, Hariman and Lucaites take issue with the critical tendency--common among academics from various fields--to regard image-driven, visual communication as a threat to the deliberative reasoning processes that are the lifeblood of a thriving democratic public sphere.  In fact, Hariman and Lucaites suggest that "democracy is a [particular] way of seeing" (289).  Looking at the iconic images of photojournalism, democracy as a way of seeing seeks out images that inspire widespread identification--especially images that allow for multiple (often conflicting) patterns for identification.  As the examples of the book show, the iconic images of democracy generate a host of positions from which to make arguments or to feel a range of sentiments.  Viewers may have completely opposing reactions to the photos--but they are all looking or have looked at that photo (e.g., Migrant Mother, Time Square Kiss, The Hindenburg Explosion).  The flexible, disjunctive collectivity pictured by the mass circulation of photojournalism engenders, supports, and embodies the disjunctive collectivity that is the democratic ideal.  And so, as we move to imagine a public sphere for visual practices that would be the electrate equivalent of the Habermas's literate public sphere, we should learn from (and perhaps incorporate) the visual rhetoric/aesthetic developed by photojournalism throughout the twentieth century.

It seems inevitable that the visual public sphere of the twenty-first century will be built and sustained with digital technologies.  Though Hairman and Lucaites readily admit their study is largely restricted to analog images, they do speculate occasionally on the role of digital technologies in fostering visual democracies:
"Digital technologies make images and texts (and sounds) equally fungible.  Thus, the visual public sphere is not uniquely or primarily visual.  One is seeing public address as it always has been articulated, but from beyond the horizon imposed by print technologies.  Public culture is a vast intertext of mixed media.  Each medium can be dominant at any one time, and each offers a perspective on the others capable of both blindness and insight.  The culture itself can only be seen to the extent allowed by the medium one is examining."
AR apps (especially world browsers) are currently extending the digital medium into every taggable/networked location on Earth--especially in highly public/urban spaces such as city streets, museum exhibits, monuments, transportation hubs, etc.  Using an AR app, one could create an appropriation of the Statue of Liberty, not just an appropriation of a photo of the Statue of Liberty.  With this in mind, we can say that relatively familiar digital technologies (e.g., image manipulation programs and photo-sharing websites) increase the speed/rate at which appropriations can be created and circulated, while AR apps also increase the very scope/canvas of visual appropriation beyond photographic images.  Digital appropriation may be the contemporary equivalent of mechanical reproduction.  That is to say, as Hairman and Lucaites point out early in their book, when mechanical reproduction displaced the aura of the work of art it also gave rise to a new kind of aura--the iconic photograph (which gains its aura not by originality/scarcity but by popularity/circulation).  By disrupting the hierarchy of circulation characteristic of twentieth century print media, the global proliferation of digital media (presumably still in its infancy) may displace the iconic aura native to mass photography and give rise to yet another new kind of aura--and further unfoldings of democracy as a way of seeing.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Human-Computer Relations

Questions concerning the relationship between humans and computers (or, more generally, technology) pervade -- and evade -- Ron Burnett's How Images Think.  That is to say, the value of Burnett's book lies in its capacity as an intellectual map that clearly identifies a handful of urgent/important landmarks for theorists writing about contemporary human-computer interaction; Burnett himself does not offer much in the way of directions or the insights we'd expect from someone who has reached a critical destination.  Below are a few of these signposts that I've extracted from the book.

Signpost #1
Burnett repeatedly critiques the terminology that (digital) humanities scholars who study images/technology have adopted from the computer scientists and engineers who build imaging/writing technologies, as if these terms like "user" and "input/output" were simply inherent or natural.  The fact is that our routine acceptance of the descriptor "user" implies a particular view of the human-computer relationship.  To position the human as user consequently positions the computer as tool, and this relation suggests the paradigm of augmentation (i.e., the machine as a prosthetic extension of man) that has been the leading model in computer science since Vannevar Bush and John Von Neumann, as well as the conventional wisdom in media theory Marshall McLuhan.  Burnett insists that our habitual repetition of mechanical metaphors inhibits from realizing a new paradigm that would account for "the shifting ground of human subjectivity" evident in (and spurred on by) the current/emergent mediascape.

Signpost #2
Recent digital imaging technologies provide a plethora of examples showing how images have literally become interfaces -- fluid and dynamic spaces (imagescapes) in which processes of visualization generate relationships between individual/collective thoughts, feelings, percepts, affects, and values.  (Indeed, images have perhaps always functioned as interfaces in this sense -- perhaps digital media just makes it more apparent for us.)  Even more profoundly, in concert with grammatology, Burnett proposes that images have always been the interface through which human perception operates: "To see images is also to be seeing with images" (33).  In other words, seeing is a function of images and our visual experience of any given reality never attains outside of images; images do not threaten or distort (nor mirror) reality and image-making does not represent reality but produces 'the real as image": we never experience a reality that is somehow prior to or purged of images (I guess this claim excludes cases of visual impairment, though?).  Is it possible to claim, then, that our "reality" have always already been "augmented" by images?

Signpost #3
In gesturing beyond the augmentation model, Burnett describes the interactions between human and computers (particularly in video games) in terms of symbiosis, which is of course reminiscent of J.C.R. Licklider's metaphorical use of this biological concept in his 1960 landmark essay "Man-Computer Symbiosis".  In my estimation, symbiosis is ultimately a fruitless metaphor when applied to human-computer interaction; it does not displace the centrality of use that delimits the scope of relations under augmentation.  The only notable change modeled via symbiosis is that the use-relation doubles and becomes a two-way street: the insect pollinates the fig tree and the fig tree yields food to the insect, and, so too, the human user decides on certain data input and the computer calculates/outputs that data for the human to draw conclusions (Licklider).  The specific (even contrasting) talents of each entity produce a benefit for both entities: the human is incapable of calculating at the speed and magnitude of the computer, and the computer is incapable of producing intelligible results without the human's data input.  Like augmentation, however, each entity uses the other as a means to the fulfillment of their own intention, reinforcing the contours of their self and their own self-interest, going about their business without ever having to change (or notice the already occurring changes accruing) in light of the interaction.  Late in the book, just for a few pages, Burnett does flirt with the idea of a "third level" emerging out of the symbiosis metaphor.  Burnett calls it "hybridization" (a term which also has roots in biological discourse).  I find the concept of hybridization much more promising than symbiosis because it foregrounds the proposition that human-computer relationships are about learning and transformation as much use and execution.  Having drawn from Bruno Latour, Burnett builds to a ripe summary of hybridization:
Hybridization, then, is about more than a mixture of elements with a particular outcome or result: rather, hybrids underlie the processes of change and evolution as technologies and humans encounter each other.  To think in these terms is to put intelligence and subjectivity back into human-technology relations.  Rather than modeling technology in the broadest sense as a series of tools for pragmatic use, there is a need to think about how human subjectivity and the ability to self-reflexively examine identity has evolved out of the relationships humans have with machinery, artifice, and their creative engagement with technology. (174)
In his discussions of hybridity, Burnett is at once outlining the emergent figure of the posthuman.  For all his mentions of subjectivity, though, Burnett never really sustains a rigorous, theoretical account to accompany his claim that, for example, "humans are now communicating in ways that redefine the meaning of subjectivity" (221).  For the conceptual building blocks of such an account, one of the best sources to turn to his Felix Guattari's late writings on ecosophy, which concerns the emergence of posthumanism every bit as much as it concerns ecology.

Monday, February 21, 2011

AR Writing Scenes

This post is a follow up to a post below called "Scenes of Writing and the Staging of Theory," and my comments here all refer to the demo videos of AR apps in that post.

What I want to to in this post is describe some the more salient aspects of the AR writing scenes pictured in these videos, all the while keeping in mind a few of Derrida's insights on writing and Mitchell's notion of imagetext.

So, here I go with a couple of observations:

1. The surface of inscription, or "the signified face": any surface lends itself to virtual inscription and thereby can -- via AR apps -- come to act as a signified face.  This virtual inscription (digital arche-writing?) occurs through geotagging or through the physical placement of QR codes onto a particular surface (or designing a surface -- most any substance -- to appear/function as a QR code).  With AR apps, all the world's a link and writing leaves no trace (or at least no trace that can be seen by the naked eye).  Each of the AR apps pictured below employ geotagging and not QR codes, presumably because geotagging is much more suited for establishing flexible, global networks of users and information -- QR codes require physical installation/maintenance and can be implemented without passing through and affixing to a Web-based network (hence the writing of QR codes do not always contribute to or reinforce an existing network).  It may be helpful to remind ourselves here that writing, as Derrida claims in Of Grammatology, "designates not only the physical gestures of literal pictographic or ideographic inscription, but also the totality of what makes it possible; and also beyond the signified face, the signifying face itself" (9).

2.  Disjunctive imagetext: as a user, I can select the site of the visual, to which my text will be geotagged, but I cannot control the composition of that visual, for it is a generally a dynamic, public space and it (and the people who occupy it) need not know that it is the place of my text. That is, the location as a writing space bears no sign of the marks I place upon it -- only a signal of the sign.  As such, the image/text dynamics potential to AR apps seem to forecast some strange political ramifications. Mitchell makes it a point to identify the political as he discusses the "older" image-text media:
The image-text relation in film and theatre is not a merely technical question, but a site of conflict, a nexus where political, institutional, and social antagonisms play themselves out in the materiality of representation. (91)
This play of antagonisms would seems to take on an even further performative dimension in the sites of conflict mobilized by popular use of AR apps.  I can caption any particular location with my text or images without imposing upon its space and, therefore, intervene into some people's  experience of that place (i.e., people who have the right app) and remain undetected by other people who occupy that place (i.e., people who don't have the app) -- a stream of writing affects the discourse of a place without it even being perceptible as a writing space.  On the other hand -- and even, because of this -- those who (or even that which) occupies a place has the power (even if unaware of my text) to appropriate, defuse, or otherwise redirect the meaning/reception of my text by virtue of its autonomy from my text.  If the place changes (and likely plays host to many kinds of fluctuations), then my text, which the app positions as a caption to the visual scene, can be caught sleeping, so to speak.  Though they clearly embody a new "conjunction of images and words" like the earlier mixed media genres Mitchell discussed, the imagetext conjunction occurring within AR apps is inevitably disjunctive when we consider the radical dispersion of the visual and the stealth secrecy of the verbal, both of which are ultimately contingent upon and imminent to the technological gestures of the user in motion.