Virilio on “statistical image” and perception #newaesthetic

Read in Paul Virilio, The Vision Machine:

But by way of conclusion, let us return to the crisis in perceptive faith, to the automation of perception that is threatening our understand- ing. Apart from video optics, the vision machine will also use digital imaging to facilitate recognition of shapes. Note, though, that the synthetic image, as the name implies, is in reality merely a ‘statistical image’ that can only emerge thanks to rapid calculation of the pixels a computer graphics system can display on a screen. In order to decode each individual pixel, the pixels immediately surrounding it must be analysed. [...] As a mode of representation of statistical thought today dominant thanks to data banks, synthetic imagery should soon contribute to the development of this one last mode of reasoning.

Why do I blog this? As usual, there’s always a French philosopher to refer to something we’re discussing nowadays. Although I’m not necessarily a big fan of Virilio, I’m often fascinated by some insights one can find in his essays. The above quote struck me as interesting with regard to the New Aesthetic meme.

Z/Z/Z/ describing the dimension of cultural artifacts that are difficult to explain using natural language

Via Daniel Rehn:

Z/Z/Z/ is a project hatched by Daniel Rehn and Sarah Caluag dedicated to “describing the dimension of cultural artifacts that are difficult to explain using natural language”. This endeavour deploys a custom visualization workflow to break down footage from film, animation and games and reconstitute this source material into stills and animated GIFs using a range of image analysis techniques.
While the underpinnings of Z/Z/Z/ predate our creative partnership, its dual-mission of research and aesthetic-production mirror the goals of our overall practice. The ability to analytically, quantifiably describe these visualizations while also revelling in their beauty is ideal for us

Why do I blog this? Intriguing approach/objective/purpose. Relevant for an upcoming course.

Robot Mori: a curious assemblage from the Uncanny Valley

Perhaps the weirdest piece of technology I’ve seen recently is this curious assemblage exhibited at Lift in Seoul: it’s called “Robot Mori” and, as described by Advanced Technology Korea:

Meet Mori, the alter ego of a lonely boy who wants to go out and make friends but is too shy. Mori, on the other hand, isn’t shy at all. He swivels his head, looking around for nearby faces. Once he detects your face, he takes a picture and uploads it to his Flickr page.

Why do I blog this? The focus on face, and the visual aesthetic produced by the whole device is strikingly intriguing. Definitely, close to the Uncanny Valley… which made me realize that whatever sits in the valley often belong to the New Aesthetic trope. I personally find it fascinating that robots can have this kind of visual appearance and wonder whether some people might get use to that after a while… in the same sense that they got used to moving circle pads as vacuum cleaners.

Fosta's Ye Olde Aesthetic

(Nick wrote this over on his blog. It deserves more blogginess, so I’m re-blogging it here as well. – Julian)

The New Aesthetic. People are all over this one. It’s Bridle’s baby and a worthwhile endeavour it is too. The main issue with the New Aesthetic appears to be in defining it, and a swathe of heavyweights have stepped up to give their view. Rather than join them, I want to try and frame the New Aesthetic a little, give it some context perhaps.

So what do we know?

The New Aesthetic is a crowd generated lucky dip in the shape of a tumblr. Some of the content makes sense and some of it doesn’t, but there’s enough there to make out a theme: machine intervention. From pixellated architecture (which might have simply been considered mosaics prior to the New Aesthetic tag) to glitch-laden pop promos, there’s the whiff of technology about all of it. But in order to understand the art (if that’s what it is), perhaps we need to understand the artists.

I work in San Francisco, at the heart of the new technology revolution. Everywhere one turns there’s a feisty startup, technology hot-house, or band of programmers hunting for a VC. In a very real sense this place is where the future is being made. One could expect to see folks in Cardin costumes, zipping around on neon bedecked segways through some proto-Tron grid. But no, the people crafting the future aren’t ‘futuristic’ in any tangible sense. The futurists I know are more interested in hearty pies, farmer’s markets, fine wines, old bicycles, hand-made clothes, leather shoes and hard-backed books. The futurists are retronauts. This isn’t solely a San Francisco phenomenon. From London to New York and beyond, one cannot fail to notice the rapid growth of heritage manufacture, and a diet of artisanal bread, heirloom tomatoes and fine-tuned coffee have fueled a growing obsession with with the old. Not the old per se, but a version thereof, a simulacrum even. The ‘Olde’. This has led to an emerging paradox in the world of objects. We love the perfection, modernity and reliable consistency of our iThings, but we also feel the need to pop them into a handmade leather pouch.

In case any of you are unsure what I mean, take a look at this: fuckyeahmadeinusa

Some of these little movies are lovely, but watch five or six of them and it’s clear that there’s a strong thread of values running throughout. The delivery aesthetic is also consistent: the short focal length; the folksy soundtrack; the slow tracking shots; the gnarled old signs; the well worn tools – they’re all there. If ever there was a well defined current aesthetic, it’s this. The Olde Aesthetic is organic, it’s slow, it’s irregular, it’s ethical. The Olde Aesthetic is worthy, has longevity, has heritage. The Olde Aesthetic is expensive.

Speaking of expensive, a lot of brouhaha has been made of the recent sale of Instagram to facebook, much of which has focused on the addition of filters to make photos appear older, as if taken with a classic camera from a bygone era. Nostalgia aside, a level of imperfection is becoming a noticeable focus in design. The creation of something consistent, elegant and ‘perfect’ is no longer as much of a manufacturing challenge as it once was. Somewhat counter-intuitively, signs of human intervention are now increasingly difficult to achieve in the era of mass automation. As a result, people are becoming numb to technological perfection and are increasingly seeking out products which evidence the skill and actions of a human, with all the associated flaws, faults and individuality.

In the world of digital products quality means consistency. If paint colors don’t match, if fit and finish is misaligned, if the product functions differently to it’s neighbor, the product is considered a failure and is dispatched to a waiting dumpster (or more likely shipped off to a grey market street seller). The same is true of digital content. Consistency is king across platforms, applications and operating systems. Tools are put in place to achieve this very goal.

But let’s look at the finer things in life, those RedWing boots, heritage style clothes, fine food, furniture and bicycles. Signs of mass production, consistency and homogeneity are undesirable in these products. The movies of the Olde Aesthetic fetishize the machines used in production, but also feature loving portraits of the wise old owls who operate them. Contrast this with the dustmasked anonymity of the Foxconn workers, tethered to their machines producing a blur of cookie cutter devices. Perhaps futurists need to live in the Olde Aesthetic in order to more clearly visualise, synthesize and ultimately understand the New Aesthetic? Perhaps the Olde Aesthetic has arisen as a counter to the reliable fast-food repetitiveness of the digital world? Perhaps the comfort of an Olde Aesthetic life leads to better clarity of thought when considering the future? Maybe they should remain polar opposites, but I think it’s important to understand potential overlaps in the Venn.

When the team at Apple signed the inside of the casing of the mac plus computer they did a very powerful and emotional thing – they stated “this thing was made by people”. Whilst the signatures were etched into the injection molding tool and reproduced with the same reliable regularity of the neighboring screw bosses and air vents, it’s still one of the most beloved elements in Apple’s design history. The very notion of electronics is repetitive and binary, but the overall product experience needn’t be. Let’s be clear here, I’m not talking about personalization, widgets or custom fonts, just as I’m not talking about dropping circuit boards into hand carved teak encasements. There must be something deeper.

Back when we lived in London we arranged a regular delivery of vegetables. In that peculiarly middle class way, they arrived in a drab cardboard box, wrapped in brown paper. They were muddy, and every now and then we would find a grub. Far from complaining, it actually added to the experience, as if the reality of our position at the end of a very long production line of human beings was suddenly made evident. In a world of perfection we actively sought out imperfection, with the express intent of breaking free from the reliable, regular produce from the supermarket. In a world of machine-perfect digital objects, are there any which have grubs? Are there any digital experiences where finding the grub is actually considered a plus? Are there artisanal, organic or heirloom digital products?

If you have anything to add, I’d love to know. In Olde Aesthetic style, send your contributions not via tumblr, but by postcard: Nick Foster – 200 South Mathilda Avenue, Sunnyvale CA 94086.

“you’ll buy software that makes original pieces of “their” works”

Read in Wired 3.05, May 1995 (via):

Kevin Kelly: If I could give you a black box that could do anything, what would you have it do?

Brian Eno: I would love to have a box onto which I could offload choice making. A thing that makes choices about its outputs, and says to itself, This is a good output, reinforce that, or replay it, or feed it back in. I would love to have this machine stand for me. I could program this box to be my particular taste and interest in things.

Kevin Kelly:Why do you want to do that? You have you.
Brian Eno: Yes, I have me. But I want to be able to sell systems for making my music as well as selling pieces of music. In the future, you won’t buy artists’ works; you’ll buy software that makes original pieces of “their” works, or that recreates their way of looking at things. You could buy a Shostakovich box, or you could buy a Brahms box. You might want some Shostakovich slow-movement-like music to be generated. So then you use that box. Or you could buy a Brian Eno box. So then I would need to put in this box a device that represents my taste for choosing pieces.

Why do I blog this? Well, simply because that’s good quote that partly reflects the discussions about New Aesthetics (and the audio side of it as I mentioned the other day, but I guess it’s applicable to other creative fields… think about architecture and Frank Gehry’s work for instance).

Robot-produced languages as part of #newaesthetic?

As a follow up to my blogpost the other day about New Aesthetic as not-only-visual-but-also-something-else, I kept wondering about other possibilities. Overall, what I find interesting in NA is that algorithms produce new cultural forms… and that it’s not just about visual representations.

One of the cultural form that can produced by robots/algorithms for that matter is certainly language and communication. Researchers in Artificial Intelligence indeed work on that avenue for quite some time and it would be relevant to consider the “language” produced in this context by (ro)bots… and see whether it fits with the New Aesthetic meme.

A good starting point for this is Language Games for Autonomous Robots by Luc Steels:

s. A language game is a sequence of verbal interactions between two agents situated in a specific environment. Language games both integrate the various activities required for dialogue and ground unknown words or phrases in a specific context, which helps constrain possible meanings. Over the past five years, I have been working with a team to develop and test language games on progressively more sophisticated systems, from relatively simple camera-based systems to humanoid robots. The results of our work show that language games are a useful way to both understand and design human–robot interaction.

This is done through various experiments such as the “Talking Heads experiment” shown on the following picture. It’s hard to find a video of such work but this one might help to get a sense of what’s happening (it’s a guessing game though).

As shown by Steels in this paper:

During a three-month period, the agents played close to half a million language games and created a stable core vocabulary of 300 words (they generated thousands of words overall). Our experiment showed not only that the language game approach is useful for implementing grounded dialogues between one human and a robot, but also that the game might be useful as an explanatory model for how language originates

And this is exactly where you can find what can be part of New Aesthetic: the “language” that emerged from these robot interactions. One of my project as a graduate students in Cognitive Sciences was about that and I remember being fascinated by the work of researchers such as Frederic Kaplan or Bart de Boer. More specifically, the latter investigated emergent phonology, i.e. how iterations of imitation games in a population of agents can led to the emergence of sound systems emerge that look remarkably like human vowel systems. It’s not necessarily the fact that is used to model language evolution that interest me here. Instead, what is strikingly stunning is to see the results of such emergence and what it can produce.

Here’s the process:

The agents that are used in the computer simulation use vowels to “communicate” with each other. For this purpose, each agent has its own list of vowels. The lists of vowels for each agent are initially empty, and will be filled as the agents engages in interactions with other agents.
The experiments presented in this work are concerned with the emergence of a coherent and useful phonology in a population of initially empty agents. In order to investigate how this can happen, the agents engage in exchanges of sounds, so-called imitation games, the goal of which is to learn each other’s speech sounds. If necessary, speech sounds are invented, in order to get the communication started, and also in order to introduce more possible sounds in the population.

The result part of the paper is quite dense and describes the phonemes and vowels produced by the robots.

Why do I blog this? Of course, in this case, the goal is to model natural languages but it would be curious to play with the constraints to see how various sorts of language systems can emerge depending on the model parameters. And this is exactly where the result can be part of a cultural form that can belong to New Aesthetic.

On a different note, the problem, from the collection angle (that is quite important in the NA theme), is that it’s hard to find audio or video pieces that can help us to listen to these languages games. I’ll try to dig into that.

“The Unknown Glitch”

Read in SPACEWAR: Fanatic Life and Symbolic Death Among the Computer Bums by Steward brand (1972):

Alan Kay: “They had a thing on the PDP-l called ‘The Unknown Glitch’ ["Glitch" - a kink, a less-than-fatal but irritating fuck-up]. They used to program the thing either in direct machine code, direct octal, or in DDT, In the early days it was a paper-tape machine. It was painful to assemble stuff, so they never listed out the programs. The programs and stuff just lived in there, just raw seething octal code. And one of the guys wrote a program called ‘The Unknown Glitch,’ which at random intervals would wake up, print out I AM THE UNKNOWN GLITCH. CATCH ME IF YOU CAN, and then it would relocate itself somewhere else in core memory, set a clock interrupt, and go back to sleep. There was no way to find it.

Why do I blog this? Working on the chapter of a book about game controllers, I am collecting material about Spacewar! and it’s interesting to see how this work parallels other current interests (such as New Aesthetics). I wish I could have seen this sort of glitch.

Is the New Aesthetic only about visual stuff?

The panel about New Aesthetic at SXSW last month left me with the impression that NA is all about visual representations:

One of the core themes of the New Aesthetic has been our collaboration with technology, whether that’s bots, digital cameras or satellites (and whether that collaboration is conscious or unconscious), and a useful visual shorthand for that collaboration has been glitchy and pixelated imagery, a way of seeing that seems to reveal a blurring between “the real” and “the digital”, the physical and the virtual, the human and the machine.

Reading Simon “Retromania” Reynold’s twitter feed the other day, I found this:

At first, I found it interesting, especially considering the follow-up blogpost by Reynolds which was basically a reaction to Bruce Sterling’s essay about NA. In this short post, the author describes what can be the equivalent of NA in the audio department of material culture:

what seems overtly, blatantly digital in today’s pop — to draw attention to its digital hyper-reality — are all those AutoTune treatments and various other vocal-science effects (stutters, glitches, drastic pitchshifts from high to low) etc that you get routinely in chartpop in recent years– that, and the general sheen of too-perfectness on both vocals (through AutoTune) and on the entire sonic-surface of songs — a digi-gloss – there seems to be an attempt there, semi-unconscious most likely, to make music keep up with the high-definition crispness of flat-screen TV, CGI in film, skin-tone even-ness and other digital touching-up effects as used in glossy magazine photography and (i believe) also in TV and films.

This all good and well but I think this is the surface of things. As a result (and I do not want to imply that Reynold’s wrong in there, I simply had the same thoughts), my impression is that this way of framing what is NA (regardless of the fact that NA is something *to be framed*) misses the point. As a matter of fact, what I find interesting with the New Aesthetic trope is not a focus on the way things look or sound, it’s way beyond that. As James has put it on his humble tumblr about NA (i wanted to make this assonance for a while): “Since May 2011 I have been collecting material which points towards new ways of seeing the world, an echo of the society, technology, politics and people that co-produce them”.

A good example, in the audio domain for once, of New Aesthetics as I find it interesting is the way the music experience is created, mediated and co-produced on a platform such as Soundcloud. Using it for some time, I am fascinated by the interface the user is provided with:

What strikes me as mesmerizing here, is the use of the spectrogram as the direct interface with musical content: not just an indicator on your screen to see the level of the sound… A machine-produced and machine-readable indicator is used to navigate in the track AND – and this is what I find intriguing – a mean to comment on specific part. Of course, that’s curious IMHO for one reason: the practices that were common on the web (commenting/tagging/starring/linking) have basically circulated to something as common as a playing a musical track and turning it into a social object that people can comment on! What’s next? Permalink for musical excerpt in a track? This example shows another category of NA that I find interesting. Perhaps the upcoming step is to find this kind of spectrogram with comments on concert poster or street graffiti but this is not the point. The main take-away is that the way we use things are changing and the things we are using too because of this co-production that Bridle described in the aforementioned quote.

Why do I blog this? This is maybe half-baked and confusing but I started accumulating material about creolization/recombination/hybridization, and I am curious to see if there a way to tie-in this with the NA meme. My impression is that there’s a hidden variable in there: something that my friend Basile Zimmermann calls the circulation of cultural elements. More to follow later on. And of course, this seems to be related to the object-oriented ontology that Julian blogged about the other day. Let’s read more about that.