Category: Uncategorized

The Surveillance Cyborg

Editor’s Note: This post is part of our ongoing series, “Queering Surveillance,” and was co-written with Alexander Wolff. Surveillance is an embodied experience, both being watched and watching. The sheer number of concert-goers recording Cher’s “Here We Go Again” concert this past year with their phones had them trade singing and dancing for an act of documentation. Whether the recordings are to remember the experience later, share the experience with others, or to simply document one’s presence in that space and at that time, recording the concert on one’s phone becomes an experience in its own right. They are present in the space, but their attention is about both what is happening in the here and now and the recording that filters the experience in the future. Their phones and recordings are central to their embodied experience, fused into one like a cyborg traveling across space and time in the moment. Add to this that countless concert-goers are recording the same concert from their individuated perspective, and thus the concert becomes infinite and virtual—of course, the way Cher was always meant it to be. (read more...)

The Nature of the Copy

From the dead center of an all-white eye, a lone sapling rose two feet tall. Cyclical ridges and valleys, etched in bioplastic by an unseen watchmaker, encircled the solitary lifeform and separated it from the mottled, decaying plant matter that had been strewn about nearby with intention, detritus by design. Lying adjacent on the table-in-sylvan-drag, a digital tablet and paper pamphlets displayed the word Nucleário.[1] Nucleário and the five other prototypes exhibited at the 2018 Biomimicry Launchpad Showcase in Berkeley, California, were, according to the event’s online marketing, projects from a “new species of entrepreneur” who practices “biomimicry,” the “conscious emulation of life’s genius,” a refrain I would hear repeatedly during my fieldwork on contemporary chimeras of biology and design. “Genius,” a cultural category once reserved for the presence of spiritual inspiration, here refers to the technical creativity of a re-animated nature that designers attempt to imitate in new devices like Nucleário.[2] Under the solar-paneled roof of the David Brower Center, whose eponym served as the first executive director of the Sierra Club, teams from Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, Taiwan, and the United States had gathered to compete under the Biomimicry Global Design Challenge, which, this year, prompted designers to devise solutions for the mitigation and reversal of climate change. The prize: a cash award of $100,000 given by the Biomimicry Institute, a Montana-based nonprofit organization dedicated to “building a new generation of sustainability innovators” through educational initiatives.[3] (read more...)

Dumbwaiters and Smartphones: The Responsibility of Intelligence

“I don’t have to drink alone,” she paused for comedic effect, “now that I have Alexa.” Thus was the punchline of a story told by a widowed octogenarian at a recent wedding. Alexa is a mass-produced personality that can play music, suggest items for purchase, monitor consumption and health habits, or, like any good friend, just listen. While all these tasks could be performed in silence with various algorithmic appliances, Alexa and her cousins from Google and Apple are imbued with a perceived autonomy directly stemming from their capacity for vocalization. Speech, it seems, beckons the liberation of abiotic materials from their machinic programming. (read more...)

Out-of-Body Workspaces: Andy Serkis and Motion Capture Technologies

Over the last two decades, the entertainment industry has experienced a turn to what Lucy Suchman termed virtualization technologies in film and videogame production (Suchman 2016). In addition, production studies scholars have described authorship as linked to control and ownership, sharpening distinctions between “creative” and “technical” work, a divide with significant economic repercussions (Caldwell 2008).  These ideas are useful in understanding film studio workspaces, where visual effects (VFX) workers and actors collaborate in creating believable virtual characters, using three-dimensional (3D) modeling software and motion-capture (mo-cap) systems to capture the attributes and movements of human bodies and transfer them to digital models.  Once captured, digital performances become data, to be manipulated and merged seamlessly with those of live actors and environments in the final film. The introduction of virtualization technologies and computer graphics tools have surfaced tensions over creative control, authorship, and labor. British actor Andy Serkis has been a high-profile apologist for the human actor’s central role in bringing virtual characters to life for film.  Serkis, who Rolling Stone called “the king of post-human acting,” is known for using motion capture (mo-cap) to breathe life into digitally-created, non-human characters. His notable performances include the creature Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003), the ape Cesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), as well as  Supreme Leader Snoke in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), and work on several characters in the 2018 Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle, which he also directed. While Serkis’ performances have made him highly visible to audiences, digital labor historians have begun documenting the often-invisible film workers creating 3D models and VFX (Curtin and Sanson, 2017). The tensions between mo-cap performers and VFX workers reveal the contours of an emerging hybrid workspace that combines actors’ physical bodies and movements with VFX workers’ manipulations of digital geometry and data. (read more...)

Description/Classification/Threshold: Experiments with Renewable Energy Taxonomy

This is not renewable energy:   Nor is this some clever, Magritte-esque meta-commentary on how it is impossible represent or think about renewable energy separate from the technologies that harness it. No, it is simply an issue of taxonomy: hydropower is only counted as “renewable” some of the time. This is confusing, because if the term “renewable” has any meaning, after all, it is first and foremost a description of a process, one that specifically refers to the fact that the natural resource from which said energy is produced either does not significantly deplete upon use to begin with, or can be easily replenished within a human time scale. Hydropower, harnessed through the most abundant substance on our “blue planet”, seems to easily fit the description, which makes the exception worth exploring. (read more...)

Critiquing Big Data in China and Beyond

“I do think that the Internet truly makes us feel the world can become a smaller place,” an interlocutor, whom I will call Bo, told me in his parents’ home in Shijiazhuang, a city in China’s Hebei Province. It was late 2014, and he was studying to become a filmmaker in Beijing. During our conversation, he told me about discovering Google Earth when he was younger, recalling how, suddenly, he could “see any place in the world” from the comfort of his home. He could zoom in to explore a mountain village in Iceland, a house, and even a village dog, feeling that, without Google Earth, he would never have been able to visit such faraway places. The experience might have been virtual (xuni), he mused, but it had also been real (zhenshi). His account expressed a kind of enthusiasm for the digital that I often encountered during my ethnographic fieldwork on digital opportunity in China. However, his story was made especially compelling by the oppressive smog plaguing the city outside. While neighboring buildings disappeared in a toxic fog, he expressed his excitement about “seeing” a digitally mediated “Google Earth.” (read more...)

System, Space and Ecobiopolitics: A Conversation with Valerie Olson About “Into the Extreme”

  [This week we present excerpts of an interview with Valerie Olson conducted by Lisa Messeri focused on Olson’s new book, Into the Extreme (U Minnesota P, 2018). Valerie Olson is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of California – Irvine whose work focuses on the anthropology of environmental systems, technologies and extremes.  Lisa Messeri is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Yale University focused on the role of place and place-making in scientific work and the author of Placing Outer Space (Duke UP, 2016). The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and conciseness.] Lisa: Into the Extreme is an ethnography of human space flight based on fieldwork at NASA Johnson Space Center most prominently, but then also other space sites throughout the United States. What I think is most significant about this book is that it activates “system” as an ethnographic object. Valerie Olson, the author (read more...)

Does ‘Going Sighted’ Make Life Better? Undoing the Desire to Cure Blindness in Russia

In 2017, two Russian deafblind patients—Grigoriy Ulianov and Antonina Zakharchenko—received retinal implants, or so-called “bionic eyes.” Both patients were selected from a pool of applicants, having met the criteria of acquired blindness through retinitis pigmentosa and a capacity to perceive light but not contours of objects. Immediately after, the country’s major media outlets burst with numerous media reports. The titles ranged from the celebratory, such as Breakthrough in Russian Medicine: First Patient Got Bionic Eyes; Magician? Just a Doctor; The Miracle of the Bionic Eye; to the more restrained, with Second Russian Patient Will Receive a Cybereye This Fall; I See But Not Like You Do: On How The First Russian Patient with the Bionic Eye Lives. The overall tone of the reports was marked by magic, wonder, gratitude for the doctors, and profound satisfaction with the procedures. They were mostly celebratory and hopeful about the new possibility of converting up to (approximately) 50,000 blind Russian individuals to sight. In the context of a new federal policy orientation aimed at making Russia inclusive of different abilities, these reports emerged as a token of a hopeful future, in which problems with the well-being of blind individuals would be solved not through systemic measures, but instead, through eradicating blindness. I follow Alison Kafer (2013) in understanding this fantasy of desired technological enhancement as part of the normative curative public imagination. (read more...)