by Dan Cohen
One of the best ways that we can react to new technology, to sense its contours and capabilities, and also, perhaps slyly, to assert our superiority over it, is to get weird with it. There is a lot of heavy thinking right now about the distinctions between artificial intelligence and human intelligence, but sometimes we just need to lighten up, to remember that human beings are oddballs and so we can’t help but use technology in ways that cannot be anticipated. And this weirdness, this propensity to play with technology, and to twist it to human, and humane, ends, should be taken seriously.
In 1993, the artist Spencer Finch, fresh out of RISD, started playing around with a Mac, a VCR, and a Radio Shack’s haul of other technology, including a directional radio wave transmitter, and he came up with “Blue (One Second Brainwave Transmitted to the Start Rigel).” When I first saw it in 2007 at Mass MoCA, it made me smile.
Finch’s gloriously weird conceit in “Blue” is that he would sit in a comfy chair watching a continuous loop of the ocean wave in the opening credits of the TV show “Hawaii Five-0,” and his brain waves from that stimulus would be picked up by a headset, which would be processed by the Mac, amplified, and sent out the window to Rigel, the bluest star in the night’s sky. In addition to the whimsical and smart conceit, “Blue” also had the best deadpan wall text I’ve ever seen in a museum: “Finch’s wave is expected to arrive at its destination in the year 2956.”
In a recent post on “Gonzo Data Science,” Andrew Piper of the .txtLAB at McGill University prompts us to do just this: get weirder with emerging technologies:
I wish data science, and its outposts in the humanities, would get more experimental. By this I mean more scientifically rigorous (let’s test some hypotheses!), but also weirder, as in the Jimi Hendrix kind of experimentation…There’s just not enough creativity behind the endeavour. I don’t mean the “I discovered a new algorithm” kind of creativity. I mean the “I created a new imaginary world that shows us something important about who we are” kind.
Andrew notes that this doesn’t need to be Hunter S. Thompson-level gonzo, but definitely more playful and wide-ranging than current practice, to explore boundaries and possibilities. Let’s get in that lab and start mixing some things up.
Over the last year, Lori Emerson of the Media Archaeology Lab at the University of Colorado Boulder has published two very good articles on the history and use of the Lab, which houses dozens of old computers and media devices, and allows for such playful experimentation. As she recounts in “Excavating, Archiving, Making Media Inscriptions // In and Beyond the Media Archaeology Lab,” Lori began her academic career studying poetry, but then moved into “trying to understand the inner workings of obsolete computers.” In this article, she successfully unpacks why that is less of a jump than one might expect, and what she has learned about how human expression is connected to platforms for writing and reading—and how much can be gained by toying with these platforms.
She also includes some great examples of humans creatively weirding out on digital media, going back decades. This example from the new media artist Norman White, working on a pre-web network called the Electronic Art Exchange Program, in 1985, particularly caught my eye:
White’s “Hearsay,” on the other hand, was an event based on the children’s game of “telephone” whereby a message is whispered from person to person and arrives back at its origin, usually hilariously garbled. [Poet Robert] Zend’s text was sent around the world in 24 hours, roughly following the sun, via I.P. Sharpe Associates network. Each of the eight participating centers was charged with translating the message into a different language before sending it on. The final version, translated into English, arrived in Toronto as a fascinating example of a literary experiment with semantic and media noise:
THE DANCERS HAVE BEEN ORDERED TO DANCE, AND BURNING TORCHES WERE PLACED ON THE WALLS.
THE NOISY PARTY BECAME QUIET.
A ROASTING PIG TURNED OVER ON AN OPEN FLAME…
(Note the similarity of this final output with some recent AI-generated fiction using GPT-2; I’ll return to that in a future HI.)
In “Media Archaeology Lab as Platform for Undoing and Reimagining Media History,” Lori provides a longer history of, and justification for, the Media Archaeology Lab.
While I am attempting to illustrate the remarkable scope of the MAL’s collection, I am also trying to show how anomalies in the collection quietly show how media history, especially the history of computing, is anything but a neat progression of devices simply improving upon and building upon what came before; instead, we can understand the waxing and waning of devices more in terms of a phylogenetic tree whereby devices change over time, split into separate branches, hybridize, or are terminated. Importantly, none of these actions (altering, splitting, hybridizing, or terminating) implies a process of technological improvement and thus, rather than stand as a paean to a notion of linear technological history and progress, the MAL acts as a platform for undoing and then reimagining what media history is or could be by way of these anomalies.
Yes! Lori then goes deep on the Canon Cat, a weird and wonderful computer from Jef Raskin, whom I covered in HI2.
Mark Sample was the playful Spencer Finch of Twitter bots, back when Twitter was fun. He made 50 bots of all shapes and sizes, but now has soured on the whole enterprise and has written a postmortem, “Things Are Broken More Than Once and Won’t Be Fixed,” about the demise of one of his more creative bots, @shark_girls. The female sharks in question are two great white sharks, Mary Lee and Katharine, actual sharks with GPS devices on them, paired with non-actual shark musings to accompany their ocean wanderings. (My assumption is that “Mary Lee and Katharine” are also not their actual shark names.)
I thought, wouldn’t it be cool to give these sharks personalities and generate creative tweets that seemed to come directly from the sharks. So that’s what I did. I narrativized the raw data from these two great white sharks, Mary Lee and Katharine. Mary Lee tweets poetry, and shows where she was in the ocean when she “wrote” it. Katharine tweets prose, as if from a travel journal, and likewise includes a time, date, and location stamp.
That is, until Twitter and Google put the kibosh on @shark_girls.
From new technology to that endlessly fascinating, multifaceted older technology of the book: Sarah Werner has started a great new newsletter that I think many of you would like: Early Printed Fun. Fun indeed—and also thoughtful about the medium of the codex and its incredible variety.
The Harvard Library has launched a new portal for their digitized collections, including a special section of thousands of daguerreotypes. I don’t know about you, but aside from the gilded frames, many mid-nineteenth-century daguerreotypes look more contemporary to me than mid-twentieth-century photographs. There’s a surprising intensity and depth to them.
This week’s What’s New podcast from the Northeastern University Library covers the use of sensing devices to aid in behavioral therapy. I talk with researcher Matthew Goodwin of the Computational Behavioral Science Laboratory about his studies of children with severe autism. Matthew is trying to create unobtrusive sensors, backed by machine learning analytics, to provide advance warning to caregivers of these children when they are heading into difficult emotional periods, such as harmful behavior toward themselves or others, so the caregivers can guide the children into safer physical and mental spaces.
This is a complex topic, and Matthew’s lab is trying to be sensitive not to overdo it with technological solutions or invasions of privacy. But as he highlights, there are no effective treatments for severe autism, and it is enormously stressful for parents and guardians to monitor children for dangerous episodes, so caregivers are hugely appreciative for this kind of behavioral advance warning system. (Listen|Subscribe)
Last week in HI6 I discussed the Digital Library Federation’s annual forum, but sent out the newsletter before the panel that I was on. That panel, “The Story Disrupted: Memory Institutions and Born-Digital Collecting,” was based on a great new article by Carol Mandel that covers the long history of collecting and preserving “talking things”—artifacts that capture and represent human history and culture—and how that important process has been completed upended by digital media.
I commented on this disruption from multiple perspectives as a historian, librarian, and college administrator, and how each of those roles entails a different approach to born-digital collecting, determining what kinds of artifacts we should collect (historian), how we should collect those “talking things” (librarian/archivist), and how to manage, staff, and pay for this work (administrator).
My fellow panelists included Chela Weber, Trevor Owens, and Siobhan Hagan, who all had helpful insights. Siobhan talked about the movement in public libraries (including hers in DC) to have Memory Labs, in which the public can digitize and preserve their own artifacts.
(Spencer Finch, “Trying To Remember the Color of the Sky on That September Morning,” 2,983 squares of blue to memorialize those who died on 9/11 at the National September 11 Memorial Museum in NYC. Photo by Augie Ray, CC-BY-NC-2.0.)