A Cyberpunk Rereading of German Idealism

Pattie Maes's TED talk demonstrating an enhanced reality device, February 2009

Over at SLOG there is a bit of a conversation is going on about Pattie Maes’s recent TED talk in which she demonstrated what she calls “sixth sense,” but that I would call “augmented reality” (with Pranav Mistry, “Unveiling the ‘Sixth Sense,’ Game-Changing Wearable Tech,” TED, February 2009; Hecht, Anthony, “Holy Freaking Crap,” SLOG, The Stranger, 3 April 2009).

Today Charles Mudede, one of the thinkers to whom I consider myself most close, comments on the significance of Ms. Maes’s innovations along a line similar to my own project (“The Near Future,” SLOG, The Stranger, 8 April 2008):

It’s as if Hegel’s geist in his grand narrative of the history of consciousness, Phenomenology of the Spirit, actually came true. We can laugh at Hegel and his impossible absolute spirit, but we cannot laugh at Pattie Maes and her wearable tech.

For some time now I have been thinking that a cyberpunk rereading of the German Idealists is necessary. I have made a number of posts along this line (see Related Posts below). One of the themes of this blog — one that has emerged accidentally — is of the hard materiality of that which we call “ideal”; the degree to which mind is in the world; and not just statically so, but the degree to which the balance of matter and information is giving ground to information, processes of reification, the “imperialism of information”; that tool for rendering the study of ideology a material science, the meme; of those twain machines which bridge the gap: brains and computers.

My contributions to the project to date:

The Deus ex Machina of Economic Crisis,” 25 March 2009
The Noosphere Visualized,” 1 January 2009
Emergence and Aufhebung (Hegel and the Swarm),” 5 December 2008
The Day I Became a Hegelian,” 18 August 2008
Imagination Unmoored,” 8 August 2008

“What is rational is actual, and what is actual is rational”!

Preface to The Philosophy of Right (1821)

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Life Logging: It’s All About the Metadata

Yes, yes, I agree with John that much of what you presently see that might fall under the rubric of life logging is either boring or pretentious or pornography. I really can’t even make it through the cream of such stuff, say, BloggingHeads. As for solipsism, there’s no sense in complaining: that’s our inevitable future. Suburbanization, materialism, the cultural conditions of capitalism et al. are merely the low tech predecessors to the coming introversion. But look past what it is today to the potential that it holds.

Don’t just imagine me sitting at home eating deli potato salad watching on a screen as Frank sits at home web browsing eating a microwave burrito. One person’s life log 24/7: not so interesting. But let’s cut it up and remix it. Imagine if everyone’s life stream was well marked up with metadata. It’s all timestamped and geotagged. Face recognition software tags all the people, perhaps place recognition software adds even more specific location data (H.M.S. Victory instead of just 50° 48′ North Latitude, 1° 06′ West Longitude). All conversations are parsed through speech to text and indexed. Stats on SIPs are tallied. User tags are attached to add to the raw machine indexes. Viewer rating and hit counts are recorded so we have some measures of quality or import. Now we’re ready for some serious use. And what will that consist of? Probably more than I can conceive, but just to toss off a few ideas:

  1. Hindsight is 20/20. There’s really little problem determining in retrospect what was important and what not. The problem is having the foresight to know what’s important before the fact and be at the ready to capture it. If the technology is there (practically limitless storage) then dispense with the hard part of being clairvoyant about impending events and just record everything. We can edit it down later. And with no pressing limit, why not make it much, much later? Or why bother editing at all? In an earlier incarnation along this path, my thought was that what I wanted was complete sense data capture with, say, a ten minute buffer so that I could go back and edit down. But when the trend in data storage struck me, I thought why trade precious time for picayune space?

    But actually hindsight is not 20/20. It only seems so under the sway of dogma. Really the past is inscrutable. There’s almost no telling what revaluation the endless mulling of the past might produce. In the perennial purges to which the raging simplifiers are want, the data trails of alternate narratives are eliminated. What seems inconsequential from one perspective is everything from another. The meager holdings of a peasant’s hovel, junk according to the great man theory of history, become the stuff of grand narrative at the hands of the archeologist. Who is to say what trend, indiscernible to us in the present, will grow to word-historical proportions in the future, or for that matter, what minutia will obsess future generations.

  2. If you build it they will come. One of the interesting phenomena of the budding age is the growing degree of unintended consequences. If you’ve got something, even something unrefined, then put it out there and a bunch of content scavengers will come along with a mash-up of some sort and put it to a heretofore unanticipated good use. One person’s trash is another person’s treasure. What do we do with all that stuff? I don’t know, but my not knowing is not sufficient. Someone else knows. And that right there is a solid gold law of the Internet age. In a system of synergy, where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, even inert garbage is a contribution to the potential of the system.

  3. Rashomon. Human recall is notoriously unreliable. If you have five witnesses, you have five different versions of events. Life logging may bring some element of objectivity to things. And once you’ve set aside trying to figure out when to turn the recorder on and when to leave it off, catching the unexpected is less of a problem. Just think how much better When Animals Attack or Destroyed in Seconds television programming we’ll have.

  4. Audience. There is, of course, the blatant issue of audience. Who do we log our lives for? As S. e-mailed me,

    To the right audience, there is value. I would give a lot for the ability to look at a few moments (any moments) of the world from my eyes as a second grader. Or a few moments from the eyes of my great-great-grandmother.

    Maybe my two year old self is not of any interest to strangers, but to my parents, to myself, to my children, my great grand children, it would be more valuable than the Zapruder film, the Omaha beach photographs, anything. As a man with a first baby on the way, I anticipate a wholesale reevaluation of your opinion as to what’s dull and forgettable and what important and in need of preservation.

    And per observation number one, the audience is subject to change over time. If that second grader grows up to be an insurance salesman, than maybe interest remains confined to family. If he grows up to be the next Einstein or the next Hitler, than the audience becomes much larger and how valuable all those things are changes vastly.

  5. The human sciences. Imagine just a few of the questions that the sociologist, the historian, the linguist, the political scientist, the antiquarian might be able to address with such a wealth of information at their disposal. The study of linguistic and meme evolution, presently confined to source material consisting of that most contrived medium, writing, would have a plethora of data. If nothing else, the study of nonce words would be revolutionized. Or think what it would do for the preservation of the dying languages and cultures. They could be preserved as they were lived, not as a graduate anthropology student’s field notes. As linguistic analysis tools become more sophisticated the empirical study of the structure of belief, moral practice and reasoning would become possible without the taint of self-consciousness interfering. Perhaps rhetoric would become a hard science. Historians have shifted their interest from great man and political history to people’s or cultural history, but prior to the fairly recent past, there’s almost nothing for them to go on. For developments in culinary practice, foods, cooking and eating tools, historians have to turn to paintings of banquets and study what’s on the table. What furnishings could you expect to find in a peasant’s house in the thirteenth century? Almost a complete mystery. There is worth in the preservation of the quotidian.

  6. Searching and Sorting. Increasingly we will search and sort by ostension. And the join between me and what I’m looking for is other people. It’s Petabyte Age analytics applied to the issue of human interest. People are too complicated for a theory that delves into the internals, so just engage in atheoretic pattern matching, one person to another. This was damn near the first thing that I wrote about as a blogger (see the “theoretical discussion” of my “Inaugural Post,” 21 June 2004).

    Information isn’t just produced and distributed (as if distribution was unproblematic). It’s vouched for, it’s filtered, it’s branded, it’s packaged with other information, it’s marketed and it’s mapped into a network. As the traditional means of these functions — newspapers, magazines, books, television stations — break down, they are being replaced by newer, more individualized methods. It used to be that a person would turn to their established sources — The New York Times, CNN, Cambridge University Press, et cetera. The editors at these institutions served the role of guaranteeing the veracity of information, of assembling a package of information desirable to a certain market segment, of providing the correct admixture of variability. But these were rather dumb packages aimed at gigantic demographics: the readership of The New York Times or the listeners of NPR. With the tools that the information age is making available, people are able to cut out the editor and design their own customized, unique information agglomerations.

    There is so much going on out there in the world that I could never keep up on it all, so I rely on intermediaries. And really I don’t want to keep up on everything. I want intermediaries who are like me and so filter in things similar to the ones that I would select myself. But I don’t want people too much like me. I want some variety and I want to be exposed to new and unanticipated things. But not too much variety. There are some things that I’m absolutely not interested in. I want people who are different enough to introduce variety, but still sufficiently similar to introduce the right kind of variety. Specifying this in an abstract way is extremely difficult. What if you had to make up a list of tags or SIPs that you wanted to see? Could you think of them all? Do you have the time to pursue the Library of Congress subject catalog? And the problem of variety is that of an unknown unknown: most of the variety that I want is stuff in which I don’t yet know that I’m interested. To define this explicitly would be a chore and one that I probably couldn’t do very well through traditional means, so I do so by ostension.

    And the way to do this is with a personally determined network of trust relationships. I subscribe to RSS feeds, I follow certain bloggers, I read my FaceBook News Feed, I add people to my “interesting library” list on LibraryThing, I trust people in recommendation systems like Amazon.com. Their purview becomes an extension of my own. Each node in my network of associations becomes like a radar picket, seeing out from one horizon to the next. They become my agents, recommending back to me the things in which I might be interested, in exchange for others doing the same for them.

    It’s an extension of what’s always gone on. People have always got together and swapped information. They’ve relayed news and gossip, passed on leads on cheap produce, swapped how-to tips. In the past it was rather easy to find people who were into what you were into because there simply wasn’t that much to be into. There weren’t many games, there wasn’t much by way of entertainment, there were fewer hobbies, there weren’t as many job opportunities because the scope of economic activity was narrower, the publishing industry was small. But just as our culture fractures into ever more narrow segments, so our ability to reach out broadens. Our capability to establish similar such relationships is no longer confined to our immediate surroundings and our geographic neighbors. It now extends over the globe and to our ideologically proximate neighbors.

    But if we are to apply Petabyte Age analytics to people, first what we require are the petabytes. In order for other people to serve an ostensive role, they have to make their information available: what they are doing, what events they are attending, what they are reading, what they are watching, what they are purchasing, what they think about all these things. Only then can one start to make determinations about whose life signature to include as part of one’s search criteria and only then do they produce the information to draw into the vortex that is you. Life logging-like behavior is a critical component of search by ostension.

  7. Environmental awareness. Generalized sights like outside.in and EveryBlock try to provide people with information specific to their locality. Sights like Menu Pix or Indie Coffee Shops do the same with respect to particular categories of interest. This is an extension of searching by ostension, only instead of like-minde people, I am interested in like-located people.

    Imagine what life logging would mean for augmented reality. What happens to a cityscape when standing in front of a building, I have the design discussions of the architect and the client, the experience of the laborers who built it, reactions of architecture critics, views of what preceded it on the lot all at my disposal. Imagine being in a new city and having the whisperings of previous visitors or longtime residents in your ear. People often say, “imagine if these walls could talk.” In the future, they will.

  8. The long tail of entertainment. To apply a straightforward materialist analysis to it, life logging is essentially a long tail phenomenon. Production and distribution of content — news, entertainment, educational, documentary — used to entail significant costs, both opportunity and financial. There was only a little bit of bandwidth and fully equipped and staffed studios and broadcast stations were extremely expensive so producers stuck to the safe side of the 80/20 rule. They went with the lowest common denominator of programming to maximize return on bandwidth expended. As the price of production, storage and distribution fall and the learning curve flattens out, what makes the cut will move comparably further down the long tail. Do you think that a thousand television channels are too many? How about one for every man, woman and child in the world? How narrow will a niche become? It’s the other side of the question of how low will production and distribution costs go. Will it go so low that the niche audience shrinks to a single person? I don’t think that even that is the limit. Probably the remote possibility of a single view or incorporation of a minute fragment of one’s output into a larger work is the limit.

    Of course people’s level of interest in participation will be a limit, but as it becomes ever easier — so easy that participation is almost indistinguishable from nonparticipation — it will eventually require active rejection to not participate. And then society might develop positive inducements to overcome even that. There’s always the dreaded network effects, but one can imagine much more stringent inducements. Not having a life log might make a person a social pariah or a life log might serve in place of a curriculum vitae or a portfolio.

  9. Personality as entertainment. Already I think in programs like No Reservations with Anthony Bourdain, Man vs. Wild, MythBusters, The Rachael Ray Show, fill in your favorite example — and I know you have one — we are seeing the maturation of reality television into personality-based programming and hence a limited form of life logging. Already the focus of these shows isn’t a premise or a regular subject, so much as the featured personality. Yeah, sure, each theme-based channel — the Food Network, HGTV, Discovery — picks someone relevant to their brand and that’s cute and all, but at this point I suspect unnecessary. For all your boredom at the medium, a person with a well developed shtick is a person with entertainment potential. And already that’s widely the case with many a medium. Whether it’s Christiane Amanpour, Rick Steves, David Brooks, Matt Drudge, Ann Coulter or the Crocodile Hunter, people tune in for the personae as much as any of the other content.

    And regarding the expansion of personality-based programming into a more generalized life logging, is our meritocracy already so frictionlessly efficient that there are no overlooked talents, eccentrics, geniuses, subversives, whatnot left to be discovered? There’s a word for it already: micro-celebrity. It was the second thing I ever blogged about (“William Gibson’s Idoru and Blogging,” smarties, 21 June 2004). Yeah, sure, some of this is boring, but some shows get cancelled too.

  10. The Zeitgeist becomes tangible. Imagine being able to request a twenty minute medley of the top 100 conversations conducted at my comprehension level on a topic, say consciousness or string theory, over the last six months. You could scan the thoughts of humanity like you presently do radio stations on your car stereo. We’re stitching together the universal consciousness here. For that to happen our thoughts have to stop happening in isolation or small factions and occur in a unified intellectual space.

Was that what you had in mind, John, when you wrote that you were taking a risk dissenting against me?

The Beijing Olympics Did Not Take Place

One of the amusing stories coming out of the 2008 Beijing Olympics opening ceremonies is that it turns out that a portion of the video feed of the fireworks display was actually a computer simulation spliced into the broadcast. The fireworks were set off, but planners determined that they wouldn’t be able to film them as well as they would have liked, so they manufactured a version of them according to how they wanted them to have been filmed (Spencer, Richard, “Beijing Olympic 2008 opening ceremony giant firework footprints ‘faked’,” Daily Telegraph, 10 August 2008):

Gao Xiaolong, head of the visual effects team for the ceremony, said it had taken almost a year to create the 55-second sequence. Meticulous efforts were made to ensure the sequence was as unnoticeable as possible: they sought advice from the Beijing meteorological office as to how to recreate the hazy effects of Beijing’s smog at night, and inserted a slight camera shake effect to simulate the idea that it was filmed from a helicopter.

But what does it even mean to say that portions of the event were “faked”? The whole thing was illusion and artifice. Obviously significant portions of the event were computer graphics. The scroll that served as the mat for a significant portion of the floor show included computer graphics to create the image of its rolling. The projection of the Earth inside the globe was computer graphics and the unfurling scroll around the perimeter of the stadium as the final flamebearer faux-ran to the Olympic torch was computer graphics.

Increasingly computer graphics will come to be the norm, what’s really “real” and the merely material world will become the anomaly. Already we’re at the point where the big story about the latest Batman film was not the CG, but that the stuff that would usually be CG wasn’t CG (e.g. Brown, Scott, “Dark Knight Director Shuns Digital Effects For the Real Thing,” Wired, vol. 16, no. 7, July 2008, pp. 122-127). Already people are talking about augmented reality. The problem that I have with, say, Google maps and other special data, is that it’s stuck in a little box in my hand. Where it belongs is overlayed onto the world. Real-world objects are the ultimate representational tokens.

Movable type, opening ceremonies of the Bejing Olympics, 8 August 2008

Or, to turn things around, my favorite performance of the night was the “movable type” arrangement of 897 actuating blocks that raised and lowered to create patterns like a waving flag and ripples in a pond. My first reaction was that it must be computer control that created the images of waves and ripples. I wondered at how much that many hydraulic lifts must have cost and tried to imagine the programming that could produce those patters. The first time the camera panned low and showed human legs standing and squatting I was amazed.

This was an instance of “natural” things “simulating” machines. What we were watching was giant wooden pixels. What was amazing about this performance was that humans could achieve this machine-like level of control and precision.

1994, David Turnley, James Nachtwey, 1994 elections in South Africa

But of course I don’t need to go to bizarre lengths. The more traditional means of artifice are well documented. There’s a reason that they call it media (middle, medium).