Paleolithic Punk and the Venus of Marseilles

Venuses of Willendorf (30-27ky) and Marseilles (1882)

To the left, the Venus of Willendorf, a 10.8 cm high stone statuette dating from the Paleolithic era, 30-27 kyr. To the right, the first anthropomorphic design for an atmospheric diving suite built by the Carmagnolle brothers of Marseilles, France in 1882.

The Carmagnolle brothers diving suite is the stuff of steampunk fantasy, but perhaps so situating it is time-out-of-joint in the wrong direction. Instead of designating it as a paleo-future, it is more properly a parachronism: perhaps we should call it the Venus (Ares) of Marseilles (with the Venus of Willendorf as old stone punk).

What Does Technology Lust After?

A Wearable Tech Hackathon sex app for Google Glass

So this was inevitable, right?

First thoughts:

  1. Really? Picture-in-picture?
  2. Seeing what my partner sees might make me never want to have sex again. I am reminded of Steve’s disquisition on “nether freckling” from Coupling s3:e5: “There are … angles. In a relationship you get seen from certain … angles.”
  3. With all the photos being stolen off of hacked mobile devices and posted to revenge porn websites, how could this possibly go wrong?
  4. Wasn’t Strange Days (1995) a great / terrible sci-fi film?

But more seriously, total immersion in the experience of another ranks along with immortality, total recall, omniscience, radical subjectivity, demediation of desire and fulfillment and a few others as ultimate goals of technology.

What I’m saying is that I think technology is teleological. The evolution of technology is not a random walk or a function of reachability or the traversal of a dependency network. Well, it is all those things, but it is not only those things. There are ends or extreme outer limits toward which technology is evolving. I think I listed a few off-the-cuff. Some systematic and dedicated attention to a fuller list is warranted.

But wence do the ends come? As I have framed them, they could be construed as merely the desiderata of the human makers of technology — technology has no end of it’s own: they are bestowed by their makers. But perhaps technology as a continuation of life, as a fourth domain, inherits these ends. Or perhaps these ends admit of a more objective formulation: eternity instead of immortality, idealist anarchy for radical subjectivity. Or perhaps for Kantian cyborgs, they are the transcendental illusions of technology.

Also, as if my digression hasn’t already been far enough, there’s this as a longing to supersede individuation:

An Internet of Creatures

Keanu Reeves in Johnny Mnemonic getting ghost-hacked by Ice-T's cyborg dolphin

Keanu Reeves in Johnny Mnemonic getting ghost-hacked by Ice-T’s cyborg dolphin

Non-human animals are late adopters. In 2009 cats started life logging. In 2012 dogs got into biometrics. Now sharks are getting on twitter. The Western Australia Department of Fisheries has started tagging sharks with radio transmitters. When the tagged sharks are detected within half a mile from beaches, the monitoring system updates the Surf Life Saving WA twitter feed with the shark’s species, size and location (“Roll Out of Tagged Shark Monitors Continues, 14 December 2013). The sharks do not yet post selfies to instagram.

“This kind of innovative thinking is exactly what we need more of when it comes to finding solutions to human-wildlife conflict,” says Alison Kock, research manager of Shark Spotters, apparently a shark social media PR firm in South Africa (Alan Yu, “More Than 300 Sharks In Australia Are Now On Twitter“, NPR, 1 January 2014). This is, of course, the sort of utopian thinking rampant among tech enthusiasts. But it’s only a matter of time before these vital shark voices are shouted down by a bunch of galeophobs, reminding us of Internet Rule 14.1: Don’t chum the trolls.

There is constant talk of the Internet of Things, about how all our devices are getting on-line and being internetworked with one another. But what about an Internet of All Creatures Great and Small? Instead of just us humans getting on-line, living in augmented reality, having brain computer interfaces, being enhanced by cognitive prostheses, we need to get all the other animals on-line too.

And look, we humans can’t stave off the robot apocalypse by ourselves. Presumably SkyNet and the Matrix don’t stop with the humans. Both SkyNet and the Matrix blot out the sun as a tactic. The other animals have a stake in the outcome of this as well. We animals need to pull together. Maybe even the plants too. Already we’re developing thought controlled power suits for monkeys and cockroaches that can interface with your iPhone (there’s an app for that). Raspberry crazy ants can detect electromagnetic fields and already have a vendetta against electronics. Now we just need to upgrade them to Raspberry Pie Ants. Maybe once we get this computation using protein folding and DNA, Craig Venter will engineer protozoa and yeast with wireless access and IP addresses to fight the nanobots.

Addendum, 17 January 2014: I should add that hot on the heels of kittens, a lot of animals are life logging these days — alligators, falcons, halibut, dolphins, sperm whales, eagles, a caracara and turkey vultures, more eagles and penguins. And of course National Geographic is like the BuzzFeed of animal cams.

Addendum II, 17 January 2014: This scientist is fitting honey bees with transponders and is running some sort of bee Aegis radar-type system to monitor their bee flash mobs.

Technology and the Profound, Part II: Apple’s Retort

A certain sector of nostalgic curmudgeons among us is driven to distraction by the fact that many people today are engaged in a significant amount of interpersonal communication and interaction with their environment mediated by their mobile devices and web technologies. This annoyance that the young people today don’t interact in the time-honored ways is expressed in a number of criticisms: that they are anti-social, isolated, rude, sedentary, disengaged, aesthetically foreclosed, temporally scattered, attention deficient and consumed by trite distractions. Sherry Turkle, the dean of cellular woe, was taped just last week by the New York Times to lament the presidential selfie. She goes so far as to suggest “device-free zones” as “sacred spaces” (“The Documented Life“, 16 December 2013, A25).

U.S. President Barack Obama, Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt and U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron take a selfie at Nelson Mandela's funeral, Johannesburg, South Africa, 10 December 2013, by Steve Harvey

Back in June I wrote about two popular memes expressing this dismay and posed Apple’s then airing ad for the iPhone 5 as a corrective (“Technology and the Profound“, 18 June 2013). Watching the ad again now, it does address a number of these criticisms, but it is unclear whether the creators were thinking of something else and it is merely inadvertent how well the various episodes of the commercial line up with the criticisms; whether they were very subdued in their response; or whether something in between: they were generally aware of some negative perceptions of their product and attempting to show the iPhone in a sentimental, social, generative light without quite explicitly matching their critics.

With their new Christmas advertisement there’s no mistaking it: Apple it using its Madison Avenue genius to directly engage this debate. And for its emotional delicacy, it’s quite a salvo.

We are presented with exactly the teen that critics of our technological mediation obsession portray: bored, disengaged, one hand always unfree, constantly removing himself from important family events to fiddle with his device. But then, a third of the way through the commercial, the reveal: all those moments when he wouldn’t put down his phone, when he dropped out of family events, what he was actually doing was making a very personal video Christmas card to the entire family. We now rewatch all the moments from the first part of the commercial from a new perspective — in both the positioning of the camera, and in our understanding of what’s going on. As the mise en abyme — our protagonist’s video within the video — ends, he signs off with a bit of video of himself, the teenage veneer of boredom now replaced by an unselfconscious, sheepish happiness and pride. The title of the commercial is even “Misunderstood”. Not only is the teenage experience misunderstood by the adults around him, not only are his actions misunderstood, but here is the cutting edge of this soft light and sentimentality play. The title is not just descriptive of the events of the commercial: it is outwardly directed: it is an accusation against the critics of these technologies for which the events of the ad are the argument: you misunderstand what we are doing with these technologies; you mischaracterize the effects they are having on us.

I’ll add a personal story here, lest you write Apple’s commercial off as a contrivance of corporate propaganda. Toward the end of my college years I attended a birthday party. It began, as such things often do, as a late afternoon back yard cookout. But just after sunset one of the organizers brought out a slide projector and for about a half-hour told stories and played music while projecting onto the white wooden siding of the large side of the house photographs from the recent life of our celebree. It was beautiful and sentimental and poignant and really funny and just a wonderful celebration of this person — so much more so than had we just stood around in the yard eating hot dogs and getting slightly buzzed and then going through the heavily scripted song and cake ritual of birthdays. In other words, had we all only lived in the moment, it would have been just another meaningless collegiate afternoon. It was specifically the documentary consciousness and all those interruptions over the years and the need to share and the clever exhibitionism and the devices that created that evening’s sacred space with its deeply focused consciousness, its break from the ordinary, its reflection and appreciation.

This was the late 1990s, so the technologies of this presentation were the old ones: gelatin emulsion film, shoebox archives dug through over the course of weeks, order forms printed on the back of envelopes, photo developing booths isolated in the middle of the shopping plaza parking lots, cardboard mounted diapositives, that beige slide projector with the torus of black slide slots protruding from the top. So the documentary intrusions were fewer, the pace of production and archiving less frenetic, the sharing less ubiquitous. But also less of the life was available, there was no parallax view, the required bravery of the performance was greater (a slideshow!? so hipster).

This is what I really like about Steven Johnson’s response to Nicholas Carr’s book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (“Yes, People Still Read, but Now It’s Social“, The New York Times, 20 June 2010, p. BU3): Johnson frankly concedes that yes, we are losing something. But loss is not the entirety of the transformation. We are also gaining something. And neither the loss of the detractor, nor the gain of the enthusiast are to be weighed in isolation. The proper debate is: is what we have gained worth what we have lost?

Flaming December

Annie Leibovitz's December 2013 Vogue cover, Jennifer Chastain as Frederic Leighton's Flaming June

I love pre-Raphaelite women and I love homage, parody, covers, remix, mashup, etc., so I’m crazy for Annie Leibovitz’s photograph of Jennifer Chastain as Frederic Leighton’s Flaming June (1895) for the cover of the December 2013 Vogue. The Vogue website has a slideshow counterpoising the photo shoot with the inspirational source material.

This isn’t the first time I’ve posted about Annie Leibovitz and Vogue spoofing some vintage design. Perhaps the most popular post on this blog (not because anyone is interested in the rambling post; mostly because people are ripping off the image) is “Destroy This Mad Brute“, an analysis of the meaning of LeBron James and Gisele Bündchen mimicking an anti-old Europe First World War U.S. propaganda poster.

Banality Creep

Bradley Manning, If You See Something, Say Something ... Unless It's U.S. War Crimes

The thing to know about Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden is Sir Thomas Gresham’s principle that bad money drives out the good. So long as the government continues to prosecute a secret war beyond the principles on which this country was founded, people of conscience will continue to come forward with these kinds of revelations. We cannot drill into young people the American mythos and require new recruits into government service to take an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic without planting the seeds of the very dissidents we now simultaneous seek to suppress. At some point the government will figure out how to screen out people of conscience, after which time our secret wars abroad and the surveillance state will be administered by scoundrels and unthinking bureaucrats. That power corrupts is as true of institutions as it is of individuals. Bad money drives out the good.

Technology and the Profound

There are two perennial memes, critical of web 2.0, social networking and mobile devices, that keep appearing in my various feeds (Um, kinda ironic that you’re expressing your Luddism through JPEGs). They are these two:

What's the Point of Being Afraid of the Zombie Apocalypse When You're Already a Zombie Yourself

Einstein: I Fear the day that technology will surpass our human interaction. The world will have a generation of idiots

Of course as is the case with the web, the second one isn’t even true. Einstein did say something similar to this, but it was with respect to the atomic bomb — the legitimacy of which is beyond reproach — not cellular telephones.

To anyone who’s posted “the real zombie apocalypse” or this purported Einstein quote: nothing is profound or incipient on its own. We are capable of finding and making such experiences where we will. Technology is as capable of beauty and the sublime as any other experience in life.

In this respect, Apple’s recent advertising campaign serves as a wonderful reply:

Of course, this is corporate propaganda, but this is an instance where what makes this such an effective advertisement is just how well it has captured the truth of an experience. One of the things that I love about this commercial is how it is composed of a number of episodes, each of which show a aspect of this particular technological experience: noticing in greater detail textures and objects that would have warranted less attention in the past but that are uniquely beautiful (weathered wood, oil slicks), being the laggard in a group for capturing an image, the foodie thing, handing cameras to and retrieving with gratitude cameras from strangers, selfies, etc.

And before you go dismissing other people’s interests too quickly, I think your children and your pet are boring.