David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: technology (page 2 of 3)

A Retrospective of the Work of Christiane Paul: “Cory Arcangel: Pro Tools”

Here I present a tribute to the work of Christiane Paul currently on display in the Whitney Museum in her exhibit “Cory Arcangel: Pro Tools.”

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Rod Humble and the Marriage: Not Labels, Not Pointers, but Live Fragments

A few years ago, Rod Humble wrote a short, abstract game called The Marriage. The action consists of trying to get two squares not to shrink or fade out while circles drift around them. You control the blue circle. The pink circle is not under your direct control.

But the game interests me less than the rhetoric of Humble’s explanation for the game. I really am not picking on Humble here, who seems like a reasonable person. It’s just worth observing how utterly foreign his analogical mindset is from that of the best writers.

He wrote the game in an attempt to get away from concrete, visual representation of ideas and concepts, yet what resulted was something conceptually very concrete.

Here is his interpretation that guided the game’s construction:

The game is my expression of how a marriage feels. The blue and pink squares represent the masculine and feminine of a marriage. They have differing rules which must be balanced to keep the marriage going.

The circles represent outside elements entering the marriage. This can be anything. Work, family, ideas, each marriage is unique and the players response should be individual.

The size of each square represents the amount of space that person is taking up within the marriage. So for example we often say that one person’s ego is dominating a marriage or perhaps a large personality. In the game this would be one square being so large that the other one simply is trapped within the space of it unable to get to circles and more importantly unable to “kiss” edge to edge.

The transparency of the squares represents how engaged that person is in the marriage. When one person fades out of the marriage and becomes emotionally distant then the marriage is over.

Your controls reveal the agency of the game. You are only capable of making the squares move towards each other at the same time or removing a circle by sacrificing the size of the pink square. You are playing the agency of Love trying to make the system of the marriage work. Not only does this mean that the mechanics of attraction and sacrifice communicate love but also the physical way the game is controlled, I wanted a gentle almost stroking like feel to playing the game, that’s why clicking or rapid motion was not appropriate.

The backdrop’s colour has meaning. It starts off blue representing the world of the masculine. The club scene perhaps or adventures and exuberant experimentation. It then over time transitions to purple a mix of blue and pink representing the beginnings of a more permanent relationship. Then to pink as we enter fully the world of the feminine such as a home made together or emotionally the relationship becoming more kind. Next onto green colour of life and renewal, this represents a giving back to the world by the marriage, perhaps creatively, perhaps by having children or caring for others. Finally it becomes black symbolizing that at the end of the marriage when life is done there is nothing but each other. The only break in the blackness is at the bottom, where the strip of light representing memories of the marriage has been built up.

The game mechanics are designed such that the game is fragile. Its easy to break. This is deliberate as marriages are fragile and they feel fragile, I wanted to get this across.

The final part of the game comes if the marriage ends while the backdrop is black. At every point the two squares have kissed during the game a pair of tiny squares is created and drift off the screen, as the last one leaves the game ends.

Now, without getting into heavy analysis, some points should already be clear.

  1. The incredible literalness of the mapping from game elements to concepts.
  2. The stripped-down simplicity of the conceptual vocabulary in order to allow for such a literal mapping.
  3. The received nature of the concepts, taking stereotypical notions like the blue masculine and the pink feminine in order to obtain an easily-grasped mapping.

(In 1910 pink was considered a very masculine color, so the symbols are culturally relative, but some relatively common symbol set within a community must always exist, and is probably always trite by its very nature.)

None of these are inherently bad tendencies. In many ways, they are necessary ones for making playable games. But the risks and problems of applying such an ambiguous conceptual vocabulary onto a literal representation should be apparent as well. It encourages a fallback onto the most common of common knowledge in order to make such a mapping comprehensible. Subjective metonymy within a simple framework (the “stroking feel” being linked to love, the various meanings of all the colors) is the key dynamic at work.

But it’s not even the particular symbols used (pink feminine, blue masculine), so much as the need for such a simple framework itself. Let’s say we need two things in a game to represent the male and the female. Is there anything satisfactory that isn’t either reductive or opaque?

  • The Mars and Venus gender symbols
  • Sword and pillow
  • Square and circle
  • Drum and cymbal
  • Hot dog and donut

The use of pink and blue didn’t produce a more sophisticated set of symbols, just a less blatant set. The metonymy was at the same concrete level as any of the duos above. And it applies to metonyms like the transparency equating to engagement.

It is the mindset of a Gene Wolfe, then, where every element, no matter how obscure, has a single definite meaning, rather than the mindset of a James Joyce, where the embrace of ambiguity and contradiction on lexical, semantic, and structural levels yields greater riches than a single postulated meaning.

My contention is that this sort of Platonic, atomistic thinking goes hat in hand with the sort of thinking used in constructing and utilizing scientific models of the world, as opposed to the messier business of human language and human relationships where a far greater degree of ambiguity is both acceptable and accommodated. This ambiguity inevitably leads to misunderstanding, sometimes destructively (say, in a marriage). The question is whether sufficient clarity can be achieved without adopting such a reductive, game-like model. Otherwise, you’ve adopted a view of the world (or of love, or of a marriage) that could easily fail you.

Ironically, this is the sort of analysis often performed in literary criticism. Thomas Karshan’s recent article on Nabokov in the TLS quoted this scabrous response from Nabokov in response to W. W. Rowe’s finding sexual innuendos in Pale Fire such as “wick” in “wickedly folding moth”:

The various words that Mr. Rowe mistakes for the “symbols” of academic jargon, supposedly planted by an idiotically sly novelist to keep schoolmen busy, are not labels, not pointers, and certainly not the garbage cans of a Viennese tenement, but live fragments of specific description, rudiments of metaphor, and echoes of creative emotion. The fatal flaw in Mr. Rowe’s treatment of recurrent words, such as “garden” or “water”, is his regarding them as abstractions, and not realizing that the sound of a bath being filled, say, in the world of Laughter in the Dark, is as different from the limes rustling in the rain of Speak, Memory as the Garden of Delights in Ada is from the lawns in Lolita.

Vladimir Nabokov

Nabokov appeals to a hermeneutic holism that defeats such easy metonymic models. It’s not that the richer worlds of which he speaks cannot be quantified as such, just that the vocabulary required is so dauntingly extensive as to require lived human experience. No such sophisticated symbolic model for this experience yet exists, and I don’t see one coming any time soon. A model cannot capture the live fragments of which Nabokov speaks. When rendering such fragments in a game, the abandonment of complexity disguises itself by using a sufficiently obscure model, so that the model does not seem banal.

Nabokov hated Freud and psychoanalysis (hence the veiled reference to Vienna), and indeed, this sort of atomistic symbolism makes me think of something Ernest Gellner said about psychoanalysis in The Cunning of Unreason: the psychoanalytic model had to walk the line between scientific precision and mythical ambiguity so as not to seem banal or spurious.

A purely hermeneutic psychoanalysis would not sound like science, confer no power, and few men would turn to it in distress; a purely physicalist or biological psychoanalysis would have been too much like a science, and no fun. But the plausible-sounding fusion of both is very different, and most attractive.

Ernest Gellner, The Cunning of Unreason

And weaker writers rely on exactly this careful navigation between the Scylla of simplistic allegory and the Charybdis of pointless ambiguity, so that they may seem profound when they really are not. I am thinking her of Alberto Moravia’s endless rationalism, where there is a neatly placed psychological explanation for every character trait and every movement proceeds from the careful arrangement of forces logically arrayed. (See The Conformist.) Moravia does it so well that the ultimate weakness of construction is a shame. (Removing the explanations, as was done in the wonderful movie of L’Ennui, can produce amazing results.)

L'Ennui: "I could tell you what I'm thinking but it would make the movie less interesting."

I know: The Marriage is just a game. Humble did not mean to make any sweeping statement about marriage in general, and the game is clearly so personal to him that I feel a little bad using it to exemplify a certain type of thinking. But speaking just personally, if my partner wrote this game and explained the game to me in that way, I would be frightened out of my wits.

Update: Rod Humble has responded kindly in the comments, and I appreciate his openness to discussion and critique. I also wanted to point out Derek Badman’s essay on Lewis Trondheim’s Bleu, since comics rely on the sort of abstracted narrative visual representation that games do as well. Bleu “tells” of the interaction of a green blob with two stars and two dots. To the best of my knowledge, there is no “key” to the abstraction. Yet the similarity is striking!

a page from Lewis Trondheim's Bleu

Cultural Illogic: David Golumbia and The Cultural Logic of Computation

David Golumbia does not like computers. Toward the end of The Cultural Logic of Computation, after lumping computers and the atom bomb into a single “Pandora’s Box” of doom, he observes:

The Germans relied on early computers and computational methods provided by IBM and some of its predecessor companies to expedite their extermination program; while there is no doubt that genocide, racial and otherwise, can be carried out in the absence of computers, it is nevertheless provocative that one of our history’s most potent programs for genocide was also a locus for an intensification of computing power.

This sort of guilt by association is typical of The Cultural Logic of Computation. The book is so problematic and so wrong-headed as to be shocking, and as philosophical and cultural excursions into technological analysis are still comparatively rare, the book merits what programmers would term a postmortem.

Throughout the book, Golumbia, an English and Media Studies professor who worked for ten years as a product manager in software at Dow Jones, insists that computers are creating and enforcing a socio-political hegemony that reduces human beings to servile automatons. They aren’t just the tools of oppression, they oppress by their very nature. Golumbia attacks the encroachment by “computation” on human life. He defines “computation” as the rationalist, symbolic approach of computers and logic.

Or at least he seems to sometimes. Other times “computation” stands in for an amorphous mass of cultural issues that just happen to involve computers. Much of the the book focuses on political issues that don’t bear on “computation” in the least, such as a tired attack on Thomas Friedman and globalization that adds nothing new to Friedman’s already-long rap sheet. Golumbia spends ten pages criticizing real-time strategy games like Age of Empires, complaining:

There is no question of representing the Mongolian minority that exists in the non-Mongolian part of China, or of politically problematic minorities such as Tibetans and Uyghurs, or of the other non-Han Chinese minorities (e.g., Li, Yi, Miao).

A true Hobbesian Prince, the user of Age of Empires allows his subjects no interiority whatsoever, and has no sympathy for their blood sacrifices or their endless toil; the only sympathy is for the affairs of state, the accumulation of wealth and of property, and the growth of his or her power.

The critique could apply just as easily to Monopoly, Diplomacy, Stratego, or chess.

Golumbia gives away the game, so to speak, when he implies that connectionism (a non-symbolic artificial intelligence approach used in neural networks) is somehow less politically suspect than the symbolic AI approaches he attacks. In fact, non-symbolic approaches like Bayes networks and neural networks are themselves used ubiquitously in the data mining he (rightly) worries about. Golumbia has confused science with scientism, and computers’ uses with their structure.

Without a critique of the technical side of computers, Golumbia’s book would be just another tired retread of Chomsky, Hardt/Negri, Spivak, Thomas Frank, and the like. Unfortunately, his actual excursions into technical issues are woefully uninformed. A surreal attack on XML as a “top-down” standard ends with him praising Microsoft Word as an alternative, confusing platform and application. He hates object-oriented programming because…well, I’m honestly not quite sure.

Because the computer is so focused on “objective” reality—meaning the world of objects that can be precisely defined—it seemed a natural development for programmers to orient their tools exactly toward the manipulation of objects. Today, OOP is the dominant mode in programming, for reasons that have much more to do with engineering presumptions and ideologies than with computational efficiency (some OOP languages like Java have historically performed less well than other languages, but are preferred by engineers because of how closely they mirror the engineering idealization about how the world is put together).

The lack of citation, pervasive throughout the book, makes it impossible even to pinpoint what this objection means. I’d be curious as to how he feels about functional languages like Lisp, ML, and Haskell, but Golumbia shows no signs of even having heard of them. Unfortunately, XML and object-oriented programming are pretty much his two main points of technical attack, which indicates a lack of technical depth.

Yet Golumbia’s greatest anger is reserved for Noam Chomsky. Golumbia devotes a quarter of the book to him, with Jerry Fodor serving as assistant villain. Somehow, Chomsky’s computational linguistics become far more than just a synecdoche for modern corporatism and materialism; Chomsky is actually one of the main culprits.

To Golumbia, Chomsky is “fundamentally libertarian”; he is a Ayn Randian “primal conservative” who accepted military funding. He has “authoritarian” institutional politics which require strict adherence to his “religious” doctrine:

Chomsky’s institutional politics are often described exactly as authoritarian.

[His work] tends to attract white men (and also men from notably imperial cultures, such as those of Korea or Japan).

The scholars who pursue Chomskyanism and Chomsky himself with near-religious fervor are, almost without exception, straight white men who might be taken by nonlinguists to be ‘computer geeks.’

Golumbia is evidently fond of the ad hominem. Golumbia also associates “geeks” with “straight, white men,” insulting 19th century programmer Ada Lovelace, gay theoretician Alan Turing, and the vast population of queer and non-white programmers, linguists, and geeks that exists today (many not even Korean or Japanese).

Yet Golumbia finds time to praise Wikipedia, founded and run by fundamentally libertarian Ayn Rand acolyte Jimmy Wales. It’s strange for Golumbia to call Wikipedia a salutary effort to demote expert opinion when Wales himself says it should not be cited in academic papers. And strange for Golumbia to see Wikipedia as progressive when many of its entries still come from that well-known bastion of hegemonic opinion, the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica. (The explicitly racist ones have been scrubbed.)

Beyond the technological confusions, Golumbia’s philosophical background is notably defective. The book is plagued by factual errors; Voltaire is bizarrely labeled a “counter-Enlightenment” thinker, while logicians Bertrand Russell and Gottlob Frege somehow end up on opposite sides: Russell is a good anti-rationalist (despite having written “Why I Am a Rationalist”), Frege is a bad rationalist. (He also enlists Quine and Wittgenstein to his leftist cause, which I suspect neither would have appreciated.) He thinks Leibniz preceded Descartes. He misappropriates Kant’s ideas of the noumenal and mere reason.

Here is a typically confused passage, revealing Golumbia’s fondness for incoherent Manicheistic dichotomies:

In Western intellectual history at its most overt, mechanist views typically cluster on one side of political history to which we have usually attached the term conservative. In some historical epochs it is clear who tends to endorse such views and who tends to emphasize other aspects of human existence in whatever the theoretical realm. There are strong intellectual and social associations between Hobbes’s theories and those of Machiavelli and Descartes, especially when seen from the state perspective. These philosophers and their views have often been invoked by conservative leaders at times of consolidation of power in iconic or imperial leaders, who will use such doctrines overtly as a policy base.

This contrasts with ascendant liberal power and its philosophy, whose conceptual and political tendencies follow different lines altogether: Hume, Kant, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Dewey, James, etc. These are two profoundly different views of what the State itself means, what the citizen’s engagement with the State is, and where State power itself arises. Resistance to the view that the mind is mechanical is often found in philosophers we associate with liberal or radical views—Locke, Hume, Nietzsche, Marx.

So it is not simply the technological material that is the problem. The quality of even the academic, philosophical portions of the book is dismaying, and the general lack of evidence and citation is egregious. Harvard University Press, who published the book, have a fine track record in the general areas that Golumbia inhabits. I am not certain how The Cultural Logic of Computation slipped through, nor how many of its blatant errors were not caught. It is an embarrassment and will only confirm the prejudices of those who feel that the humanities have nothing to offer the sciences but spite and ignorance.

For contrast, Samir Chopra’s Decoding Liberation: The Promise of Free and Open Source Software (Routledge) is an excellent and rigorous examination of some of the political and social issues around software and software development, strong on both the technical and philosophical fronts. I would urge anyone looking at Golumbia’s book to read it instead.

Franzen Again

The New York Times wouldn’t print Birdwatching is an Alternative to Love, but they did print a shorter response to Jonathan Franzen’s op-ed bemoaning the loss of love and pain in the modern world of gadgets:

Technology and Love

To the Editor:

I am puzzled by Jonathan Franzen’s essay “Liking Is for Cowards. Go for What Hurts” (Op-Ed, May 29).

I am significantly younger than Mr. Franzen and so experienced very little of the vibrant pre-technological world of love and pain he describes before the onslaught of the Internet.

In searching for archaeological evidence of this now-lost world, I expected older American literature to be chock-full of the Sturm und Drang whose loss he bemoans.

Yet in reading John Cheever and John Updike and Joseph Heller and Richard Yates and Raymond Carver and Sinclair Lewis and John Dos Passos and Frank Norris and Theodore Dreiser and Sherwood Anderson, I saw the same repressed, numbing malaise of “liking” Mr. Franzen bemoans, frequently portrayed in more acute terms than in any of Mr. Franzen’s novels.

Shouldn’t contemporary writing reflect a far more loveless and lifeless and superficial world than those books written before the age of the BlackBerry, when such distractions from love and pain were not available? It frightens me to think that techno-consumerism may not be the key nefarious influence at work, and that therefore bird-watching may not be the solution.

Brooklyn, June 1, 2011


And now back to the embargo on Franzen over here.

Birdwatching Provides an Alternative to Love (or, The Question Concerning Ornithology)

This essay is adapted from a commencement speech Jonathan Franzen delivered on May 21 at Kenyon College.

A couple of weeks ago, I started watching loggerhead shrikes instead of Eurasian wigeons. Needless to say, I was impressed with the qualities of the shrike. Even when a live one was not on hand, I wanted to keep looking at pictures of my shrikes and experiencing the marvelous clarity of its black face mask, the silky action of its hooked bill, the shocking speed of its responses, the beguiling elegance of its wings.

I was, in short, infatuated with my new shrike. I’d been similarly infatuated with my old Eurasian wigeon, of course; but over the years the bloom had faded from our relationship.

Let me toss out the idea that, as birds discover and respond to what consumers most want, birds have become extremely adept at creating products that correspond to our fantasy ideal of an erotic relationship, in which the beloved object asks for nothing and gives everything, instantly, and makes us feel all powerful, and doesn’t throw terrible scenes when it’s replaced by an even sexier object and is consigned to a drawer.

To speak more generally, the ultimate goal of birdwatching, the ontology of ornithos, is to replace a natural world that’s indifferent to our wishes — a world of hurricanes and hardships and breakable hearts, a world of resistance — with a bird so responsive to our wishes as to be, effectively, a mere extension of the self.

Let me suggest, finally, that the world of birdwatching is therefore troubled by real love, and that it has no choice but to trouble love in turn.

Its first line of defense is to commodify its enemy. You can all supply your own favorite, most nauseating examples of the commodification of love. Mine include camping, birdwatching, biking, and the particularly grotesque equation of nightingales with everlasting devotion. The message, in each case, is that if you love somebody you should watch birds with them.

And, since birds are really just an extension of ourselves, we don’t have to have contempt for their manipulability in the way we might with actual people. It’s all one big endless loop. We like the mirror and the mirror likes us. To watch a bird is merely to include the bird in our private hall of flattering mirrors.

I may be overstating the case, a little bit. Very probably, you’re sick to death of hearing birdwatching disrespected by cranky 51-year-olds. My aim here is mainly to set up a contrast between the narcissistic tendencies of birdwatching and the problem of actual love.

There is no such thing as a person whose real self you like every particle of. But there is such a thing as a person whose real self you love every particle of. And this is why love is such an existential threat to the ornitho-consumerist order: it exposes the lie.

And yet pain hurts but it doesn’t kill. When you consider the alternative — an anesthetized dream of self-sufficiency, abetted by birdwatching — pain emerges as the natural product and natural indicator of being alive in a resistant world. To go through a life painlessly is to have not lived. Even just to say to yourself, “Oh, I’ll get to that love and pain stuff later, maybe in my 30s” is to consign yourself to 10 years of merely taking up space on the planet and watching birds. Of being (and I mean this in the most damning sense of the word) a birdwatcher.

But then a funny thing happened to me. It’s a long story, but basically I fell in love with computers. I did this not without significant resistance, because it’s very uncool to be a computer geek, because anything that betrays real passion is by definition uncool. But little by little, in spite of myself, I developed this passion, and although one-half of a passion is obsession, the other half is love.

And so, yes, I kept a meticulous list of the programming languages I’d seen, and, yes, I went to inordinate lengths to learn new ones. But, no less important, whenever I looked at a piece of code, any code, even a Perl script or a stylesheet, I could feel my heart overflow with love. And love, as I’ve been trying to say today, is where our troubles begin.

How does this happen? I think, for one thing, that my love of programming became a portal to an important, less self-centered part of myself that I’d never even known existed. Instead of continuing to drift forward through my life as a global citizen, liking and disliking and withholding my commitment for some later date, I was forced to confront a self that I had to either straight-up accept or flat-out reject.

Because now, not merely liking technology but loving a specific and vital part of it, I had no choice but to start worrying about the future again. The news on that front was no better than when I’d decided to quit worrying about it — was considerably worse, in fact — but now those threatened forests and wetlands and oceans weren’t just pretty scenes for me to enjoy. They were the home of things I loved.

But when you go out and put yourself in real relation to real people, or even just real computers, there’s a very real danger that you might love some of them.

And who knows what might happen to you then?

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