Notes from Transmediale 2015

I recently attended my first Transmediale festival. Under the motto of "Capture All", the curators invited us to explore a rapidly approaching future in which every single aspect of our public and private lives is tracked, quantified and used to fuel algorithms of control. 

Commons by LaTurbo Avedon

Commons by LaTurbo Avedon

The panels and conferences explored three main aspects in which these control structures are shaping our daily lives: Work, Play and Life.  The following are my notes on my favourite talks on these three areas, to serve as a form of Highlights edit of the festival.

 
The work Keynote Panel

The work Keynote Panel

Work

The overarching narrative of the Work stream at Transmediale was the way in which the line between work and life has gradually been eroded. An all-women panel presented the keynote for this stream.

Pressed For Time

Judy Wajcman, professor of sociology at LSE, presented her thoughts on Labour and private life. She reflected on the transformation of Labour (paid work) away from the 70s idea of a purely temporal, definite act in which you're paid for being present at a Place of Work and which there is a clear distinction between workplace time and own free time. Technology, which always promises to free our time, instead has brought about the feeling that life is speeding up, and thus we are distracted with emails, calls and an ever-present work pressure. She talked about the demise of linear clock time, and how people now try to disconnect, and practise mindfulness as a way to regain control on their otherwise work-slumped life. But technological innovation still brings about new experiences, which means that we spend more time on our devices and screens than actually sleeping.

Wajcman also considered the idea of work being more stressful now than it used to be. She points at technology having no life of its own, having contradictory effects and being used in ways not imagined by their designers. Essentially, it gives us the illusion of being able to take more control of time. She uses the example of the mobile phone, initially a tool for business, instantly becoming an instrument used to communicate with family and friends. Modern families and friends have far few collective routines (eating together, breakfast, etc) than ever before. Mobile phones have become a sort of activity synchroniser where seemingly inane calls such as "I'm on the way home" have the important function of helping people come together within their private lives. 

This technology also creates its own cultural pressures. Email, seen as a work tool, has brought about etiquettes of how long it is considered polite or acceptable to wait before replying to someones query. People complain about work emails invading their home life, but it is clear that increasingly a lot of work time is being used for personal communication, thus blurring the line between our work and life. As such, social media has become a kind of emotional labour, where content created by people is monetised. Initiatives such as Facebook at Work contribute to this new workload, an extra job where we now have to spend our time managing our digital infrastructure. Thus now Quality of Life can be measured as the amount of Discretionary Time we possess, essentially the new measure of freedom.

Social Media as Free Labour

Tiziana Terranova delivering her talk on the commons

Tiziana Terranova delivering her talk on the commons

Tiziana Terranova, a researcher and activist of labour in the internet age presented a challenge to the explosive commercialisation of the internet, where company earnings is measured as growth and open source is used as the main production model. She posits that we have become a sort of social network automaton. Social machinery has been abstracted for us to participate in a process of monetisation. Hyperlinks become edges and nodes on a data object, while social buttons quantify and re-centralise the Internet towards a few proprietary and closed systems. Women played a vital role in the success of social networks, which depended on their acceptance and entrance onto the system. This is probably why women don't use twitter as much, and the ones that do, prefer to keep their accounts protected.

The near-zero marginal cost of information is bringing about a crisis of profit and a rise of rent, a loss of value of waged work arising from the capitalisation of the social. Profit-making enterprises are now few and far between, and social values are becoming market values. Social quantities, with the help of big data and scientific and tech labour are shaping this transformation. She refers to social quanta (Beliefs, desires and intentions) as the fuel of the conflict between algorithmic reason versus algorithmic regulation and optimisation. Financialisation becomes the solution of capital to the now obsolete measure of value in hours of work. Debt becomes a kind of social control. 

Terranova asks then how can we regain control, how can we re-socialise the value accumulated by these private enterprises. She proposes an economy not founded on waged work but on values and future potentials by social cooperation. A commonfare athropogenic economy, an intensification of singularities. A destituent power, using anonymity and the blockchain as weapons. But this constituent power based on social cooperation doesn't mean a division of labour, but rather the differentials of power and the interplay between invention and imitation. 

These two speakers raised incredibly valid points, pointing us to the crossroads we face in a future where our information becomes a commodity, and our work is rendered meaningless.

 

Life

The keynote on Life was delivered in German by Byung-Chul Han, professor of Philosophy and Cultural Studies at the Universität der Künste Berlin. This was my favourite talk of the whole festival. He explored the concept of Transparency as an effect of the electronic objects, a kind of "hell of the same", where we increasingly seek ways to escape digital distractions, with tools such as the freedom app. Han points to an obsessive Dataism brought about with the onset of the quantified self, where self optimisation, a loss of unnecessary fat is brought about by creating data. This is creating a new disease, a kind of informational obesity, where there is an obscene, permanent accumulation of excess information. 

Han introduces the concept of Transparency as a new paradigm brought about by the nascent digital dystopia we live in. Transparency, with its positive image, transforms the globe into a panopticon. This paradigm shift affects our perception of what is life, reality and our bodies. He calls it a second period of enlightenment, where Kant's starry heavens have become our screens, and moral law becomes informational control. Every form of transcendency becomes transparency, and communication is regarded in all its eminency and permanence.

Active life becomes essentially operational, in the sense that nothing is new or autonomous, but merely data-driven. We encounter transparence when things are put onto the greater data stream. He analyses the word for happiness in German (Glück, ge-lück, gap-less) and it's implication on modern life as a gap-less society. Images become transparent if liberated from their hermeneutical depth. That which is smooth is obscene and transparent, hence gap-less.

Black Smoking Mirror by Jan-Gert Prins and Martijn van Boven

Black Smoking Mirror by Jan-Gert Prins and Martijn van Boven

Transparency is for Han a neoliberal device for control, where imminence is an obstacle, secrets are an obstacle, thresholds are obstacles. Transparency is the maxim of a digital order, as opposed to an earthly order as thought by Heidegger (earthly as that which is essentially undiscoverable). On this new Digital order earth becomes transparent. Han exemplifies computers through hydroponics as an example of a transparent system. Hydroponic plantations are closed systems, given exact amounts of light and nutrients, using water only as a carrier, an a agriculture without a landscape. These systems are more optimum that Earth itself. Earth is no longer needed, and is just reduced into a transparent system, an aseptic space of pure efficiency. 

Han explains how statistics brought about the first enlightenment, where counting replaced myth. But statistics alone are not enough, so when teamed up with Big Data we obtain a form of rule discipline, a form of psychopolitics. This is a totally new type of power, one that Foucault couldn't predict, where rule and freedom are one and the same, because rule uses freedom and becomes complete. We move towards a performance-oriented society, where we are subjugated but unaware of being so. The ruler is smart, friendly, it excites us, is non-repressive and seductive. This smart power is for Han the digital dictation of the like, a willing exposure of the self that simply happens, one which rules by seeking to please and thereby uses and exploits freedom. However, he was quick to argue that this system is far from Orwell's - in our case we are ruled by unlimited communication, surveillance has a friendly face. 

He then went on to explore truth as a narrative, and how this new Data Fetishism is shaping the nature of what we understand as Truth. He draws another linguistic example from German, where the word for Power translates to "Rule". Truth, is for Han a kind of droning, which has been withdrawn from things and replaced with a flurry of data, bringing about a crisis of the mind. Dataism is a digital Dadaism, Data devoid of meaning, since it lacks narration. 

In Han's new digital age, we are involved in what he calls a Nietzschean nihilist hedonism of the last people, where self tracking becomes self-survey, where we exploit ourselves, willingly staying under our own surveillance. By creating a panopticon where we are both the Inmate and the surveyor, we have committed the ultimate treason: we submit to voluntary self inflicted rule. Our phones have become the devotional object of the digital age, a Rosary transmitting our Amens as our likes and retweets. 

We carry around a digital confessionary, where we voluntarily lay bare our souls for the profit of data driven corporations. We have entered a Digital Medieval Age, one in which we don't seek forgiveness, but attention, where one is encouraged to "express yourself". In this age you till the land of your social life and companies collect the harvest. People are happy to treat themselves as objects. We arrive at a self devoid of meaning, for Han, self knowledge through numbers lacks a narrative, therefore lacking truth.

Han doesn't see selfies as an indicator of pathological narcissism, but rather as a symptom of an insecure self seeking reassurance by attracting attention. Identity is defined by others. The mind isn't an accumulation of data points. Retrieval and storage are not a narrative. Capturing all creates layers of cumulative data, digitally stored presents, but no narration to interweave them all.

As an example, Han uses Dave Hegger's novel "The Circle" in which people wear a webcam across their neck broadcasting 24/7, enabling full transparency of everyone's actions. The people in the so-called C-System believe privacy is theft, because everything that happens needs to be known. For Han, the gaze is linked to fear. He argues that our digital panopticon has no gaze or fear. There is no need for repression. Instead, our panopticon allows us to communicate. We share data because we have an innate need to share. We bare ourselves digitally as an act of freedom. While people used to fear and protest state surveillance in the 1980's, now we happily give that data to corporations without protest: there are no protests because we have no one to protest against.

Han elaborated on the self-driving car. He sees it transforming us into mobile sources of information, by turning driving into a merely operational act. The car will no longer be a phallic symbol: Carsharing demystifies the car as a phallus. The phallus is seen as the symbol of ownership and power, but when the owner is no longer an actor, the car becomes operational, just an interface, thereby loosing its meaning as a machine of action.

Our current state of hypercommunication is "simply exhausting". Han identifies a crisis of the body. Widely available pornography leaves the body devoid of meaning. Films usually show closeups of faces, where the body is nowhere to be seen. Showing an isolated part of the body is pornographic, but when showing an isolated face we lose meaning, like when a person tries to reach or grab something. By isolating the body we look at it as just connections and patterns based on systematic analysis. Health becomes management and optimisation of the body. In this new era we run the risk of attaining immortality, but losing life.

Han's message, brilliantly translated by the professionals at the festival, hit home, and i found myself agreeing and nodding to every single point. His metaphors are incredibly on point, and I can't wait until his books are translated to English. Speaking of books, Han made a point that his critics claim that his writings are becoming even shorter, with the risk of probably vanishing in thin air. He joked about it and said "woudln't that be nice, then my ideas would float in the air and be breathed in by everybody".

 

Play

While I was unable to attend the keynote on Play, several panels explored interesting aspects of play in the capture all context.

Civilization VI - Age of Warcraft

Eastwood group presented Civilisation VI - Age of Warcraft, a mod of the popular Civilization series, where you play as one of the intelligence agencies and internet warfare groups. In the game, you conquer other agencies' computer systems, using hackers and malware as soldiers. The game sports a black and white pixel retro look.

Screenshot from the game Civilization VI - Age of Warcraft

Screenshot from the game Civilization VI - Age of Warcraft

The game was developed as a critique to the fact that in the standard Civilization games, the culture path to victory will usually fail. The team has a history of creating other mods, this being their "third and final installment" which brings forth a simulation of "classical warfare in the dark internet age". Unfortunately I haven't been able to find a link to the downloadable version.

Cargonauts - Logistical Worlds

Another game showcased in the festival was Cargonauts, a game built as part of the Logistical Worlds project. The game simulates life as a worker in the greek Cosco shipping complex in Piraeus. The game highlights the intersection between software, infrastructure and labor in a highly codified space. The creators wished to highlight the highly algorithmic nature of work in an automated dock, where labour is highly timed, hyper controlled and requires precise movements from the workers, who are only called into work via SMS 2 hours before their shift is due to start.

Cargonauts tries to explore life as a Dock worker at Piraeus, Greece.

Cargonauts tries to explore life as a Dock worker at Piraeus, Greece.

The game is written in Unity, and can be played here. The conversation with the creators revolved around their choices of graphics, which unfortunately are rather underwhelming for a 3D game. When asked why they chose 3D over more manageable art styles such as pixel art or 2D, they replied that displaying the landscape and the interplay between infrastructure elements in the docks was especially important, but I fail to see how that could not have been done on a 2D game. Furthermore, the controls are terrible, rendering the game completely unplayable. It is impossible to move around properly - imagine poorly implemented tank controls - left mouse click has the same effect as a forward, and left/right move the camera but not the player, until forward is pressed, when the player suddenly changes direction. 

 
A view of one of the exhibition areas.

A view of one of the exhibition areas.

All in all, it was a thoroughly enjoyable and thought provoking festival, with interesting workshops, really cool aesthetics, carefully curated projections (i recommend you check out World Brain and Das Schleyer-Band). However, the highly pessimistic tone of most of the talks stayed with me throughout the festival, reinforcing the idea that this new world we're heading towards is not one I particularly feel happy about.


On-the-fly Codepoetry

This Sunday is my first show with my algorithmic music box. I'll be playing at the Wharf Chambers in Leeds, on a show that goes from 17 to 21 hours: 

Organised by yèct, the show's idea explores the relationships between code, poetry and their audio visual expression:

The first output is the ephemeral act that involves the recital - session (...), but also by the relationship of the development of our doing, we want to establish a transition between the process and the object (*), which is also our interest to publish a tape with the resulting sounds from that session, as well as complement the same with the visual results of our recital, this means algorithmic images and the codepoetry of each set.

 Can Code be poetry? Can poetry be code? can code bridge the gap between poetry and audio?

An incredible lineup includes Yaxu (Alex McLean) whom i'm very excited to meet. I can't wait.

The Waves - Generative Music using Node.js

My dear friend Himali Singh Soin recently moved to London. She is currently working on a project that highlights the abundant use of semicolons on Virgina Woolf's "The Waves". On her visual work, she explores wave/particle duality as expressed on literature.

In her video, she uses a metronome to navigate through all the semicolons on the work.

In her video, she uses a metronome to navigate through all the semicolons on the work.

She reached out to me to see if I had any ideas on how we could put a soundtrack to her video. I had the idea to map the distances between semicolons into notes on a scale. One of the problems with generative music is that it usually doesn't sound that musical at all. So, I decided to constrain myself to a scale so that the work would sound as musical as possible, while still having a generative/data driven basis.

The first step was to analyse the base material. Thankfully, a text file of the work is available form project Gutemberg which means that processing the text was very easy. I created a node.js parser that would essentially split the work into a list of passages between semicolons and semicolons. Then I took the size of these passages and created a JSON file with some metadata.

Once that was created, I moved onto creating a MIDI instrument with Node.js. I have experience creating music with Ableton Live, but I can't afford Max for Live. Furthermore I'm not that comfortable with GUI programming languages. So, i created a rudimentary midi controller on node.js, using Justin Latimer's node-midi package. It creates a midi input and output, and is controlled by Ableton, so you can play, stop, etc. Unfortunately there isn't information on the BPM set on Ableton on the MIDI messages, so that was a bit hard to work with - I might want to use OSC for that. Anyway.

The C-Dorian scale. It sounds real nice.

The C-Dorian scale. It sounds real nice.

When you press play on Ableton, the script commences iterating through the segments on the JSON file, and maps the number of words of the segment onto a note in the scale:

// Octaves generally go from -2 to 8
var octave = ((line.numberOfWords / scale.length | 0) % 10) - 2;
// scale is an array of note names
// notes is a map of note names to midi codes (on scale 0)
var noteName = scale[line.numberOfWords % scale.length];
// there are 12 semitones between octaves, so the octave transpose
// is 12
var note = (notes[noteName] + (octave * 12));

Each note is then triggered as a noteOn and noteOff messages, with a variable duration between these. Ableton then receives the MIDI message and uses it to drive an instrument. This produces quite a musical output, ranging from bassy notes to high-pitched accents. 

The output of the MIDI controller, with the semicolons mapped to notes and midi codes. Note the high variety of pitches

The output of the MIDI controller, with the semicolons mapped to notes and midi codes. Note the high variety of pitches

The video was also edited in Ableton, for some tempo fixes and warping to allow for the mechanicity of the node script. You can watch the video here. I recommend you wear headphones.

I've also uploaded just the audio in case you want to listen to it that way:

Queuing Simulator

If you got here you've successfully queued for a long time (or found the link at the bottom of the page). I'm sad to say that the queue was however a fabrication - there was no real "queue", just a digital barrier between you and the content of this website.

Since it's #CyberMonday, I decided to create a queueing simulator to reproduce the experience found at Curry's website:

I hope you have enjoyed the rush of emotions that thousands have felt throughout this weekend, not only the bouts of compulsive consumerism and herd behaviour that were experienced on the temples of capitalism, but also authentic feelings on the digital realm.

You can queue all you want here