The case of the missing Barnes paintings

Dr. Albert Barnes was a chemist who made a fortune at the turn of the 20th century developing a treatment for infant blindness. He became interested in art and befriended the painter William Glackens. The two began collecting modern paintings in Paris in 1911, and Barnes eventually developed a private collection of paintings that today is valued at $50-60 Billion. Amazingly, he collected the works of the masters before they were masters, almost the equivalent of buying the Mona Lisa off Da Vinci in a dark Venice alley for twenty bucks. While he never got his hands on Mona, he amassed a world class collection of Renoirs, Picassos, Matisses, Modiglianis, Van Googhs, and more.

Barnes was a quirky character. He hated the establishment, and couldn’t stand museums, high society or the 1%. He had this crazy idea that art was best appreciated by living with it, as opposed to viewing it in crowds for three second doses. He kept his collection of paintings in his home in the Philadelphia suburbs, and opened a school where people could learn about art while surrounded by it. He hung his paintings thematically, and each wall was a unique montage, what came to be known as an ensemble. He was constantly rearranging these works, and he rooms were often developed as a part of a curriculum — there were rooms featuring colorwork, brushwork, nudes — and, since he owned them, I imagine he occasional pulled down a Van Gough from the wall and let his students feel it to teach them about brushwork. He had an idiosyncratic sense of humor, and would often position large wooden chairs beneath paintings of big-bottomed subjects.

Barnes was quite cantankerous, and he was picky about who he admitted to see the collection. He once rejected someone from seeing the collection and signed the letter as his dog. He was also close friends with John Dewey, and invited Bertrand Russel to teach at his foundation. A few biographies have been penned about him, and The Devil and Dr. Barnes recounts many of the battles he engaged in during his life.

He was married for decades, but (spoiler alert) he died childless in 1951. During his lifetime he created the Barnes Foundation, and his will left crystal clear instructions that his collection was bequeathed to the foundation and should never leave his home. The documentary film The Art of the Steal tells the story of the greatest heist of the 20th century. According to the filmmakers, the City of Philadelphia and private foundations conspired to effectively eminent domain the collection. It took them a few decades, but they were eventually able to make the case that the environmental conditions of the Barnes home were jeopardizing the paintings. The proposed creating a brand new building in the middle of downtown Philly modeled after the wing of the Barnes estate that held his collections. They promised to preserve the unique curatorial layout of his rooms, recreating them within the new building. In 2012 the Barnes collection was moved to it’s new home in downtown Philly. The website describes the collection as:

… the greatest private collection of impressionist, post-impressionist and early-modern paintings. Explore more than 3,000 masterpieces, including 181 Renoirs, 69 Cézannes, 59 Matisses, 46 Picassos, 16 Modigli­anis, and 7 Van Goghs, plus textiles, metalwork, decorative objects, African sculpture, Native American ceramics and jewelry, and Pennsylvania German furniture.

Moving the collection to downtown Philly certainly made the collection more accessible, and the issues around moving the collection are undoubtably more complex than the Art of the Steal portrays. Rather than take these questions up in this post, I am far more interested in another question:


How did Barnes know which paintings to buy?

Barnes had a demonstrably amazing knack for investing in value. Suspiciously good, from my perspective. As far as I can reason, there are four primary hypotheses that can account for Barnes’ hit rate:

  1. Null hypothesis: Blind luck. Or, if you like, had a great aesthetic sensibility and was able, with Glackens help, to identify the masters well before most others had.
  2. Arbitrage: Maybe Barnes wasn’t so great at picking winners, but was a great art trader. Perhaps he bought up just about everything he could get his hands on inexpensively, and then got rid of the crap.
  3. Trend setter: Barnes hated the establishment, and much of the establishment resented Barnes. Perhaps Barnes’ collection became so valuable precisely because he kept it under lock and key, selectively allowing people to view it.
  4. Time Bandit: (a) Barnes was a time-traveller. Or, at the very least (and somewhat more likely) (b) was receiving messages from the future, providing him with tips on which artists to invest in.

If we consider the Time Bandit explanation (4b), mostly because it’s the most fun, these follow-up questions immediately present themselves: Who sent these messages to Barnes, and why? What would they get out of it?

Starting with the motive, what if the following deal was struck? The tipster would exchange this information with Barnes in return for a reply from Barnes, back to the future. What if Barnes agreed to stash some of his collection, perhaps in a country house, a beach house or a château? He could leave behind a treasure map directing the messenger to the lost Barnes paintings, completing the exchange without creating a vicious tear in the fabric of space-time.

What if I told you that I think I have found this treasure map, and that it’s encoded in one of the rooms of the Barnes collection?

Wanted: A few good art historians and treasure hunters to help me track down the missing paintings.

Audio experiments and the rise of Scuttlebutt

by Jonah Bossewitch and Rob Garfield

ouroboros_Michael_Maier_Atalanta_Fugiens_Emblem_14While chipping away at my dissertation this summer I found myself faced with the daunting task of transcribing about a dozen hours of video. I desperately wanted to believe that, in 2014, transcription was a machine’s task, so I took a minor detour through the state of the (consumer) art in voice recognition.  One of my computers runs OSX which includes Dictation (since Mavericks), the same voice recognition software that powers Siri. Following these instructions I used the Soundflower kernel extensions to send the audio output from Audacity into Dictation’s input.

Dictation did such an awful job understanding my video that I actually found it easier to transcribe the videos manually rather than edit Dictation’s vomit. I found some decent software called ExpressScribe to assist in the manual transcription.  ExpressScribe makes it easy to control the playback speed, and can be configured to play a segment, automatically pause, and then rewind the video to moments before it paused.  The pro version can be rigged up to foot petal controls, but I was able to do my transcription using the crippleware.

This summer I visited my friend Rob’s country house, affectionately dubbed Snowbound and located on the transcendental Baptist Pond, NH. Rob was gracious enough to invite me up for a writing retreat, though we managed to fit in some canoeing, hiking, cooking and drinking. We also gave birth to one of the most creative constructive procrastinations of my dissertationScuttlebutt.

After all that time playing with transcription tools we began to wonder if OSX could understand itself.  For years, OSX has been able to turn text to speech, and even ships with dozens of voices, with names like Vicky and Alex.  What would happen if we fed OSX’s text-to-speech into it’s own Dictation software?

Dealing-with-Workplace-Gossip6Originally we thought Scuttlebutt might analogize and highlight the way that we humans misunderstand, mishear and misremember, in particular, the lightning quick messages that we receive on a daily basis through personal interaction, social media and emailoften deeply changing the message, generalizing it, and recontextualizing it.  Although voice recognition software begs us to “train” it, we thought we might have better results interacting with its infant state.

We needed a reliable benchmark and settled on the first chapter of Genesis. We were curious if the voice recognition software would improve, with successive iterations of feeding it it’s own output back to itself using text-to-voice. There was one way to find out.

In the beginning God created the heaven and the rest anything is left without things we think are funny face of the deep and just give it to Scott moved upon the face of the waters…

The results were surreal and absurd. Successive iterations degenerated, and we realized that Dictation was trying to adapt and learn, and would never reach a stable state. In fact, the system wasn’t behaving deterministicallywe were seeing different interpretations when reading the exact same text. As you can see from our lab notes, zaniness ensued.

One of the things we found most beautiful about the initial Scuttlebutt experiments was watching the mechanisms think in real time, going back in the text to reevaluate previous approximations in the face of new material, yet rarely, if ever, arriving at a more humanly coherent whole.  With Soundflower enabled, the text-to-voice was inaudible and my laptop appeared possessed as the words flowed spectrally into the text editor. At times Scuttlebutt would pause, as if pondering, and burst forth with an entire paragraph. Other times it corrected itself, backtracking as if reconsidering it’s previous composition. What we saw was an unthinking machine actually thinking in a way so foreign to us that we could only find it charming and amusing.  The analogy to human misprision began to erode and the phantasm of an alien intelligence emerged to take its place.

Did Scuttlebutt care about Genesis?  Did it care about cogency, grammar, narrative, character?  Was it looking for a climax?  Was it acting like an alien parrot trying to please us with its ability to mirror the sounds it heard and fool us into thinking it had at least an unsteady foothold in human (English) linguistic competence?  Would it have passed a Turing test altered to determine whether an alien mind was conscious?  Will the first recognizably sentient AI be running on free/open source software (a question we’ve pondered previously in: Playing doctor)?

What next for Scuttlebutt? A tweeting preacher-bot?  Transrealist poet?  Mechanical Burroughsian cut-ups?

peddling platforms

7175132773_dc83a2d1f2_bNew York City’s bike share program is flourishing, and I recently signed up for a membership even though I live outside the range of any Citibike stations. I find it convenient and fun to use the bikes to cross town, as well as zip from place to place when I am downtown. Since my first ride on the Parisian Vélib’, I’ve become a huge fan of bike shares, and have enjoyed rides in Paris, DC, Denver, Miami, and Toronto.

The other month I had a great conversation with a local bike shop owner about the new program, and he conveyed the anxiety that many bike shops are feeling around Citibike. Understandably, many are concerned that the bike share will cut into their rental and retail sales, although I think it is likely that an increase in  biking will generate more interest and awareness, and generally increase the demand for bikes and bike services.

Our discussion helped me recognize was how the city bike shares can be viewed as a platform for innovation, in the same sense that the iPod/iPhone is platform. And, just as the iphone-as-platform enabled a large ecology third-party  hardware and software businesses, bike shares present an analogous opportunity to creative entrepreneurs. Platforms can support entire ecosystem, and city bike shares provide an opportunity to build a new ecosystem around them.

Cases and Chargers

Let’s start with the hardware. I don’t need an MBA to understand that the real money in retail is made by selling accessories. For the iPhone this includes cases, cables, and a range of other devices, but retailers like Amazon and Best Buy have invested in incredibly complex systems to track the relations between products and their compatible accessories.

Consider this. What New Yorker wants to be mistaken for a tourist while riding their Citibike? What they need is a way to (fashionably) express themselves, and make the generic bike their own. Starting with an appropriate pannier bag, Citibikers need an easy way to transport their helmet, gloves, music, and personal belongings. Bike shops currently have entire walls devoted to these kinds of accessories. With some focused curation bike shops can begin assembling “MyCitiBike” kits that are segmented and suitable for the demographics of their customers, no custom manufacturing required.

Bags and accessories are just the start. Helmets should be as ubiquitous as umbrellas—inexpensive ones sold by street vendors, and maybe more durable ones available in vending machines, for a refundable deposit. You would just need to bring your own liner, which you could conveniently stash in your pannier bag.

Turn on the lights

Consider the explosive proliferation of bike lights that are poised to transform New York City into Black Rock City. Bike lights are being sold in  increasingly dizzying arrays of frequencies and patterns, but the arms race for visibility and attention may soon devolve into visual noise and distraction as the density of bikers grows. Imagine you are a biker who wants to communicate your intentions to a motor vehicle. During the day, there is a system of hand signals for signaling your intent. But currently are are’t any well established  standards for bike lights, other than white in the front and red in the back. Some of the standards that could help are obvious—more red when I’m braking, and left and right blinkers when I’m turning.  Others, like wireless control of helmet mounted lights, still need to be worked out.

Some European bike manufacturers have begun introducing signaling innovations, but without standards these efforts will likely stall. Standards can emerge from the top-down, by mandate or regulation, or the bottom-up, by convention and adoption. I believe that bike share fleets present a powerful opportunity to innovate on bike safety and standards in a way that could lead the rest of the market.  Admittedly, it would be difficult to convince municipalities to devote the resources to underwrite these features. However, I dream of a day when stakeholders such as Transportation Alternatives and Critical Mass work with the Mayor’s office to hold Citibank’s feet to the fire. Instead of just a marketing campaign designed to whitewash their reputation, the Citibike program could be used to spearhead safety initiatives, such as lighting standards and open APIs, that could eventually make their way across the rest of the biking industry.

Computational Cycles

The iPhone has the app store, and bikeshare apps could be just as expansive. From quantifying yourself for fitness and health, to turning the city into one big arcade game, the possibilities are really wide open. It’s easy to imagine apps which bring traditional “pedal-for-charity” campaigns into 21st century, as well as casual team games like capture the flag or even frogger.  Some of these games could be powered by apps that run on smartphones, or fitness trackers (e.g. fitbit),  but once again, the bike-share platform offers an opportunity to standardize data formats and open apis for ride tracking. RiderState is an early example of a competitive social game for bikers, but more will surely follow.

It’s an exciting time for cyclers. US cities are finally embracing bike lanes and bike shares are spreading across the country. Bike safety continues to be a pressing issue, as projects like crashmapper vividly demonstrate. Creativity is spinning around gorgeous projects like Monkey Electric, and revolights brings brakelights to your wheels. There is a huge opportunity to coordinate some of this activity around platforms like the Bixi bike, and build a thriving ecosystem around bike shares.


Makers, Burners and Pedagogy Transformers

Last Thursday, I managed to further integrate my personal/professional/hobbiest identitites, and me and two of my esteemed colleagues (Therese and Jon) presented Burning Man and Hacker/Maker Spaces at the weekly CCNMTL staff meeting.

The rosetta stone for our talk was Fred Turner’s seminal paper Burning Man at Google: a cultural infrastructure for new media production (published by New Media and Society, the same journal that published my and Aram’s paper on The End of Forgetting (preprint)), which Turner also presented at Google, where his talk was recorded.

We tried to connect Burning Man to a central question in education — the question of transference.  Do skills learned under simulated conditions transfer over to real world settings? We started out with the grand question, “What Educates?”, and tried to narrow that down to the question of how we can view commons-based peer-production in an educational context?  What can Burning Man, and crucially, the Maker Spaces that make Burning Man possible, teach educators about teaching and learning?


Our talk:

And our slides:

Now that we have presented this to CCNMTL, some of the librarians have gotten wind of our talk, and have invited us to re-present it at a tech brownbag lunch later this Fall 😀

To the evolution!


Dear Frank,

I remember the first time we met. It was my third and final interview for my current job at CCNMTL back in Spring ’04. I was initially anxious, but you immediately made be feel welcome and comfortable. [Over the years I came to appreciate your gift for authentically connecting with just about anyone, often within 30 seconds of meeting them. You dispatched with superficial niceties and blazed trails directly to people’s souls. You bridged intellect and emotion, without a hint of pomp or circumstance, projecting sensitivity and respect to everyone you encountered. Age, class, race, gender – not so much that these dimensions were irrelevant, but you always managed to connect with the individual. You actually listened. And learned.] During that interview I remember walking into your office, encircled floor to ceiling with books. You asked me about my undergraduate senior thesis, a topic I hadn’t revisited in almost a decade, and then proceeded to pull Julian Jaynes off the shelf. You showed me your photo with Allen Ginsberg, and then asked me if I recognized the person in another grainy b/w photo. When I correctly identified Wittgenstein I was pretty confident I had landed the job. But, more importantly, I had found a new mentor.

We didn’t interact very often my first summer at CCNMTL. I worked in Butler library, under Maurice’s supervision, and you were keeping summer hours, at your office in Lewisohn. When Fall rolled around I was eager to enroll in classes, and begin my graduate journeys, but I was nervous about signing up for a course with my boss. You never made me feel like a subordinate, but I was scarred from my relationship with management at previous jobs, and wasn’t sure what it would be like for us to enter into a student-teacher relationship. I hadn’t quite figured out that that was the only kind of relationship that you knew how to cultivate, although our roles were constantly revolving and inverting, as you shared your wisdom, and facilitated growth in every exchange. You brought out the best in everyone around you, rarely content to talk about people or events – always rushing or passing your way into the realm of the Forms. As I reflected when Robbie retired, I chose to enroll in your legendary Readings seminar after one of your students (I think it was Joost van Dreunen) made the case that your syllabus was your text on social/cultural/critical/communications/media theory.

That year was invigorating. I remember rediscovering the joys of school, as I learned to reclaim spaces of intellectual exploration and play, and translate them into action. On the surface, our seminars resembled office meetings, but the luxury of non-directed (not to be confused with non-purposeful) conversation, which was a privilege I needed to readjust to.

Together we figured out ways to weave together disparate threads of my life – work, hobbies, play, passions – somehow, I learned to integrate these (often inconsistent) vectors into a unified construct. A self, I suppose. But, it was my self, not one you imposed on me. It never felt like you pushed your agendas or ideologies on me – rather, you always wanted to help me discover what I really want to think about and work on. And I know that I’m not the only one that believes this – this was your way.

I often wish you had written more, although your autobiographical text is a multi-volume, multi-dimentional, multimedia masterpiece. Sometimes I wonder how seriously you took Socrates’ critique of writing, along with his commitment to be a midwife for ideas. Did you lose count of the number of dissertations you helped deliver?

One under-studied paper that you published, “Who controls the canon? A classicist in conversation with cultural conservatives,” (Moretti (1993), Teachers College Record, 95, pp. 113-126) captures many of the paradoxes you embodied and worked through. A radical classicist, a skeptical optimist, a scientific artist, a philosophical craftsman, an institutional revolutionary. Somehow, you integrated these roles with a career trajectory that not even the most advanced detectors in the Large Hadron Collider could trace. I watched you start countless conversations with a Greek or Latin etymology, charming the academics, administrators, and funders alike in a display of the continuing power of the Western cannon. You constantly reminded us of the classical education that many of our favorite thinkers received, and insisted we read them against that backdrop. But, more importantly, a reminder of how radical these thinkers all were in their own time, and how likely they themselves would be protesting the ossification of the cannon, if they were around today. These lessons will live on through one of the last projects you initiated, Decolonizing the Cannon, which a number of us are committed to follow through with. After 25+ years of reading Homer every fall, it will take us a lifetime to reconstruct the lesson plans you left behind.

In the 9 years that I’ve known you we’ve been to hell and back. We’ve studied together, traveled together, worked together, gotten sick and healed together, but all the while kept our senses of humor. I’ve read many beautiful eulogies about you, but in this letter I want to emphasize your enduring sense of humor. You were a funny man. LMAO funny. Slapstick funny. Dada surrealist funny. Hashish funny. Plenty of the humor was dark, and perhaps, as your student Ruthie suggested to me recently, your humor helped shield you from the brutal injustices that you perceived and experienced all around us. But you were also sometimes a klutz, in an absentminded-professor sense, and a disorganized mess. A creative mess, but a mess. But, I have to say, that even when you were operating on scripted autopilot, you were way better than most people at their best. There wasn’t much you enjoyed more than being called out for your lapses in attention, and my glimpses of your inner monologue were often hysterical. I think that your analysis of power led you to conclude the the world was simply absurd. We all witnessed you acting on this with gravitas and determination, but in the minutia of our micro-interactions, there was always a wide smile and a belly laugh. I don’t think any of us will ever forget the sound of your laugh. (Or, your bark. Man, did you love to throw down and argue. But, that’s another post.)

After I started taking classes with you, it didn’t take me long to realize that that the secret to understanding what you were talking about was knowing what you were reading that week. You would basically have one conversation all week long, no matter who you were talking to. I imagine it was bewildering to many of my coworkers when you brought up false-needs, or commodification at our weekly staff meetings, but if people paid close attention, they could almost observe the wheels spinning all week long, as you lived the theorists you were teaching through the practice of our projects. I often explained to people the incestuous nature of my work/school commitments by comparing my situation to a graduate student in the natural sciences. They might spend 40-60 hours a week in a lab, and working for you was about as close as I could imagine to working in a communications lab. I often wondered how many of my cohorts managed to keep up on developments in new media (and many of them certainly did) without the ambient immersion in a practice that exercised and embodied the theories we were reading.

When summer vacation rolled around, you never quit.  I remember how you used to talk about the stretch of time between Sept-May as one long sprint (as long as I’ve known you, you’ve taught at least 2-2 + advising phd students + multiple committees at TC and the J-School, on top of your administrative responsibilities as executive director at CCNMTL and a senior officer in the libraries) , but you didn’t exactly slow down in the summer either. Or, perhaps I should say that you did slow down, but you never stopped teaching and learning.  For at least 3 or 4 summers I participated in “slow reading groups” with you and a few of your dedicated students. We didn’t get any credit for these sessions, and you didn’t get paid. We would sit in your office, and go around the table reading a book out loud, pausing whenever we needed clarification.  And, we often needed clarification. You were convinced that no one was reading anything closely anymore, and that the hundreds of pages that were assigned in courses each week were flying by without students or teachers taking the time to slow down and absorb them.  The second summer we tried this we read Latour’s Politics of Nature, a text we all internalized and will never forget.

You had such a funny relationship with technology. You loved gadgets, but were constantly thwarted and befuddled by them. I wonder how many laptops and phones you lost or broke in the years we have known each other. You never stopped learning, but were suspicious of every new tool that showed up, and the more hype around the tool, the more you growled defensively at it. But often, after months of critiquing and berating something, you would come around and start appreciating it. While some of my coworkers/cohorts seem to have chips on their shoulders about the ineffectual futility of technological interventions, you had an optimistic will that allowed you to wield technology like you wielded the classics. Opportunistically, and instrumentally, in the service of social justice. That was your gig. Relentlessly. Sometimes I wonder if you felt like you had painted yourself into a corner with all of your critiques — like when you whispered quietly to me that you wanted to learn how to use Second Life, without blowing your critical cover.

Last week I ran into an ex-girlfriend that I hadn’t seen in over 10 years. It was nice to reconnect, and in the course of our conversation I realized that we hadn’t spoken since I had started working and studying at Columbia. I was an entirely different person back then, one I barely recognized. Perhaps people return to graduate school in order to change, but true transformations require a relinquishing of your old identity and ego, without a clear idea of what might emerge on the other end. The Judaic tradition has a teaching that anyone who teaches you the alphabet is considered a parent. You literally taught me the alphabet, as we revisited the alphabet as a revolutionary communications technology (via Eric Havelock), and you taught me many other alphabets and languages that gave me access to entire new worlds.  You also invited me into your home, and made me feel like I was part of your family. Most of all, you modeled and embodied an honesty, integrity, and sheer force of will that I am blessed to have intersected.

Safe travels, Frank, and enjoy your vacation.


“So what?!?” – Wikimedia ’06 Plenary session at Wikimedia ’06 in Cambridge, multimillionaire philanthropist Brewster Kahle presents his vision for the Internet Archive, and Frank steps up for the Q&A.  Classic brilliance.

Yottabytes, wormcams and whistleblowers

If you haven’t yet heard about the  details of the NSA’s spying program, catch yourself up with the timeline so this post doesn’t sound entirely bonkers.

For years I’ve been pondering the scope and implications of what Aram Sinnreich and I call The End of Forgetting, and even prior to Edward Snowden’s revelations, I have recently noticed a few dramatic activations of massive distributed memory banks.

In recent months, there have been a few instances where we have literally peered back in time, reconstructing the past based on comprehensive (relevant) records. In the sciences, the collection of records prior to having a specific question is sometimes called “triple-blind“. And, as we know, the dragnet-style collection of records has extended far beyond the lab. If software does one thing well its the collection/storage/retrieval of records; And, software is everywhere.

This story about the reconstruction of February’s meteor path based on dashboard-cam footage reassembled inside Google Earth was pretty stunning:

Also, was it me, or did the reconstruction of the crowd scenes leading up to the Boston bombings feel a bit like the the distorted phone messages from the past that the Scientists reconstructed in 12 Monkeys???

Mainstream physicists have postulated a viable form of 2-way time travel based on wormholes. In this scenario, one end of a wormhole is accelerated into the future, allowing those in the future to travel back to the point where the wormhole was opened, but crucially, no farther back in the past. The point when this wormhole is created is known as Year Zero.

In the past, I have discussed physically travelling through time (Pyramid Schemes), including how critical detailed records of your destination is to plotting flippin’ pinpoint coordinates. But in this post I’m content to explore the metaphor of the Wormcam, a science-fiction device I first saw used in Arthur C. Clarke’s Light of Other Days.  The wormcam is a wormhole that only allows light to travel through it. In this book, wormholes are first able to bridge any two points in space, and soon thereafter, any two points in time. Most people learn to correctly assume that they have at least one wormcam fixed on them all the time.

I’m not really big on sharp discontinuities in history, and I’m not particularly fixated on determining when precisely Year Zero fell/will fall. But, its increasingly clear to me that The End of Forgetting signifies the singularity, more-so than AI, Mo-Bio, and Nano-Tech combined. There won’t be a single moment when prior and after people won’t understand each other, but the period we are living through right now has those characteristics. And PRISM is just the start.

If you haven’t heard of the British series Black Mirror, stop reading this post right now and go watch  S01E03 The Entire History of You.  Really, that episode alone should lay to rest the question of why someone who doesn’t break the law should care about the End of Forgetting.

Of course, the precipice we are standing on does not only provide us with a view of the past. While the past doesn’t determine the future, power is determined to wield the past as a means of stacking the odds.

The media is currently preoccupied with data mining, and forensic analysis.  But, the real money is about about turning the wormcams to the future, using predictive behavioral modeling. The NSA  only needs to be 100% correct to stop terrorists, but corporations only need to be a few percentage points better to sell more burgers or prevent your friends from changing mobile carriers, and politicians often only need a few more points to win an election or gerrymander a district. A friend of mine at TC published a paper about predicting who will drop out of high school dropouts by third-grade, based primarily on their grades and absentee records. And, that’s before we turn to  pre-crime or pathologizing risk.

In Snowden’s own words, “they can use this system to go back in time and scrutinize every decision you’ve ever made, every friend you’ve ever discussed something with.”

Just remember, if all that exists is the present, then the past must be as malleable as the future. That is, unless we digitally ossify them 🙂

Pyramid Schemes

A few months back I visited Cairo and cracked the mysteries of the Pyramids. Or, more accurately, cracked open some exciting new lines of inquiry. I was visiting Egypt for work, but had some time for sight-seeing along the way. I had visited Egypt about 20 years ago (!) but had largely skipped Cairo, and we’ve both changed a bit since then.

The day after we arrived in Cairo we visited the Egyptian Museum. When Frank and I visited Israel we discussed how national museums are often used to assert a national ideology by anchoring it within a particular historical narrative.  Striking insight, especially since Mubarak had recently commissioned his son to begin construction of a new national museum that was in progress when we visited (mid-revolution). The current national museum dates back to British colonial times, and feels like a warehouse. It is filled with countless riches, but it’s really almost impossible to navigate without a guide. I thought it was notable that the museum makes no mention of the Bible or the Exodus, even if it is to point out that there is no historical record of the events described (except for one possible mention of the Israelites, but even that is downplayed).

We had a wonderful tour guide taking us through the museum, and as we travelled through history I couldn’t shake the feeling that we were missing something important in our interpretation of these artifacts. The patron saint of my PhD program, James Carey, draws an important analytic distinction between communication as ritual, and communication as transmission. While there is no sharp line between these two modalities of communication, it is often helpful to distinguish between the two. So, for example, many of us read the paper ever day as a ritual, more like taking a bath than receiving information.

When we reached Tutankhamun’s treasures it hit me like a ton of limestone bricks. Through their burial rituals, the Egyptians were trying to transmit information, but we were largely interpreting their rites and artifacts as ritual. Having read works like Serpent in the Sky, I have an inkling as to how structures like the Temple of Luxor (and Solomon’s temple, for that matter) were attempts to represent their society’s entire cosmology. What if the Egyptian burial rituals were an attempt to transmit the state of the art of Egyptian knowledge? All of it—astronomy, mathematics, medicine, and philosophy/religion/metaphysics?

The first obvious question is the identity of the senders and receivers. If we take their myths at face value, the soul of the king would soon return to the his mummy.  Perhaps he might need a refresher course in Egyptian cosmology after the journey?  Cliff notes, at least? Or, perhaps these burial chambers were intended as time capsules. Messages intended for future generations? Future civilizations? Or, maybe just future generations of Egyptians (their civilization lasted thousands of years). Perhaps these attempts to capture the totality of Egyptian knowledge were like pissing contests between the priests.  How succinctly and elegantly could they represent Egyptian knowledge?

This was my frame of mind during my stay in Cairo and the questions I was mulling over as we visited the pyramids of Giza later that week.

Co(s)mic Interlude

Did you ever hear the one about the pyramids as time machines? It goes something like this:

The pyramids are constructed out of tons of limestone bricks. The molecule that makes up Limestone has two energy states. It’s lower energy state is its equilibrium. However, the molecule can also be excited into its higher energy state. Supposedly, this state could be induced by an acoustic wave at the correct resonant frequency. In the pyramids, this was achieved by a chorus of priests chanting at the appropriate frequencies.

During initiation rites, an initiate stood in the burial chamber of the pyramid while the priests chanted. This excited the limestone molecules. At a precise moment, the priests all stopped chanting, allowing the limestone molecules to collapse back into their lower energy state. This produced a wave of energy, all focused on the burial chamber. The initiate fell into a trance, whereupon they dreamed they travelled to the future.  They remained in this trance indefinitely… that is, until they heard this story!

Ha. Get it?

Space-Time Bouys

The pyramids are massive. Beyond human scale. They made me wonder…

For a while I’ve believed that time travel really must have really picked up on this planet around the invention of photography. For a fairly mundane reason. Your calibrations need to be flippin’ pinpoint. Time traveling can be though of as tele-transporting, through space-time. So, you need to be able to safely and reliably target your destination coordinates.The last thing you want to do when teleporting is materialize in the middle of a rock or a tree or worse. Photographs, when combined with the exact date and time of their exposure, provide such coordinates to future chrono-naughts looking for a safe journey.

In the presence of the pyramids it dawned on me that there is another solution to this safety equation: Hold your spatial coordinates fixed!  This would work best if you could build a structure that would be around for thousands of years, so you could be sure your point of arrival/departure would be around on both ends of your trip. The pyramid’s burial chambers pretty much fit this bill (modulo the irregularities of the earth’s orbit, the motion of our galaxy, etc. Quantum entanglement to the rescue?).

Could the pyramids satisfy these constraints? Maybe. This hypothesis could go a long way towards explaining the “curse of the mummies“. Could King Tut’s burial chamber be one of the last operational teleportation chambers? 3D printers designed to reconstruct information beamed from somewhen else (after all, the necessary atoms are sure to be in place for the reconstruction)?  Or, would the Egyptian pyramids merely decorative cribs of the original Atlantean devices, and were never fully operational?

All this suggests that Moses was a sleeper agent who infiltrated the Egyptian priesthood to liberate their most well-guarded secrets. Of course, the evidence of his handiwork is mapped out clearly in the blueprints of the tabernacle.

In Dec 2012 our sun will align with the black hole at the center of the milky way (or, will it?). A pretty good spatial-temporal landmark, if I were navigating. Whenever.

Forthcoming: The End of Forgetting

In Spring ’05 I took a class with Eben Moglen on the privacy, anonymity, and surveillance beat. The experience changed my life and with tons of support from my teachers and cohorts, I have been working on these ideas ever since.

A few years ago I joined forces with Prof. Aram Sinnreich, after a great conversation at a free culture salon. Together we reframed and refined the work, and co-presented it at Media in Transition 6 in Spring ’09.

We rinsed, lathered, and repeated our revisions, and just learned that our paper, The end of forgetting: Strategic agency beyond the Panopticon will be published in an upcoming issue of New Media & Society.

Damn. Scholarly communication is slow, but occasionally fulfilling.

Aram will also be presenting our work at this year’s International Communications Association conference.  Sadly, I can’t make it, but if you are near Phoenix this weekend, stop by Camelback A at noon on Sunday!

7337 WikiLeaks, ICTs, and the Shifting Global Public Sphere

Sunday, 12:00-13:15, Camelback A

Global Communication and Social Change, #ica_gcsc  Communication and Technology, #ica_cat

A Theoretical Model for the Wikileaks Phenomenon (Top Paper, Also Featured in Virtual Conference) Rebeca Agneta Pop, U of Oklahoma, USA

Transcending Boundaries? WikiLeaks and a Transborder Public Sphere Edgar C. Simpson, Ohio U, USA

WikiLeaks and Freedom of Expression: Perspectives Voiced via the International Press Iveta Imre, U of Tennessee, USA
Ivanka Radovic, U of Tennessee, USA
Catherine A. Luther, U of Tennessee, USA

The End of Forgetting: Strategic Agency Beyond the Panopticon

Jonah Bossewitch, Columbia U, USA
Aram A. Sinnreich, Rutgers SC and I, USA


The People’s Drones

In May ’06 I visited New York’s annual Fleet Week and personally met a few drones who were sleeping below the flight deck of a U.S. warship. In the 5 years since, “unmanned aerial vehicles” have reproduced explosively, and are rapidly changing the parameters of war and American foreign policy.

Glenn Greenwald describes the “Drone Mentality” that renders victims invisible and enables risk-free aggression and violence. Public anti-drone outcries are spreading, though media coverage of the effects of U.S. drone attacks is glaringly absent. My friend Madiha Tahir has been reporting and researching these attacks in Pakistan and the accounts she has gathered are quite horrifying.

But the U.S military isn’t the only outfit with access to these technologies. Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp (!) is using a drone to capture footage (and who knows what else), and Polish protesters in Warsaw used a drone to capture footage of riot police attacking them. Last year some hobbyists buzzed the Statue of Liberty with an unmanned aerial vehicle, and didn’t even get fined.

Drone technology is advancing very rapidly, though to the average observer the technology might not look that much different from 70’s-era remote control planes. Most of the advancements are happening in software, which is invisible to the casual observer, and also more difficult to prevent from proliferating.

If you haven’t seen any of the amazing footage of quadcopters in action, take a peek. These machines are much simpler to pilot and steer than a helicopter, and are quite inexpensive. There are quad-rotor open-source hardware/software projects, like the aeroquad (complete kits $1.5k), and the high-end is quite affordable (< $10k) for news companies and local police departments.

At the moment, the regulations around flying these drones is ambiguous. But the FAA is currently reviewing regulations, and a government agency predicts there will be over 15,000 civilian drones operating in U.S. airspace by 2018.

Drones are already in use patrolling the US/Mexican border, and the Department of Homeland Security is helping local law enforcement agencies obtain them. When I saw the video of the Polish protesters (via @MutualArising), I began wondering why local news companies were still flying manned traffic and news copters, and then I ran across the story (via @jonathanstray) about Murdoch’s drones.

From my limited research, I believe that non-commercial hobbyists are allowed to fly these vehicles below 400ft. I propose that Occupy Wall Street should fly drones at every protest, to counter Mayor Bloomberg’s egregious attempts to suppress journalistic coverage of the protests.

It seems clear that a robotic arms-race is underway, and my friend Peter Asaro, a robo-ethicist who serves on the international committee for robot arms control (icrac), worries about an arms race where everyone from drug cartels to the paparazzi all begin abusing drones. I remember Eben Moglen predicting that it won’t be long before every self-respecting dictator has full regiment of killer robots. Unlike human police, robots aren’t likely to hesitate when ordered to fire upon civilians.

The right to bear robots?

I am not convinced that drone-control is the best response to the asymmetrical power drones deliver (at least when it comes to surveillance drones, not armed drones).  I think they best way to counterbalance this power is with  open-source drones.  The people’s drones.

Update: As per @MutualArising‘s comment below,  OccupyDrones has taken off!

Parabolic Intentions

4585915584_8cb079376dMystical traditions depict a singularity in consciousness occurring when all of humanity is united in the same state of mind. Our choices will determine if we will arrive at this state by achieving global peace, or take a detour through the another World War. In the limit, our shared reflective awareness is a possible consequence of globalization and has been linked to the promise of world peace.

Meanwhile, Princeton University’s all-but-unheard of Noosphere project has begun tracking meaningful correlations in random data that suggest an awakening of global consciousness. The project has distributed physical networked “eggs” which generate a steady stream of random numbers. Upon the occurrence of events of global significance the streams suddenly become a lot less random  (actually immediately before these events, but that’s another mystery).  Unprepared to even postulate the mechanism for the correlations they have established, the project minimally suggests that our collective intentions and emotions have the power to influence and affect our physical reality.

A wise mentor of mine thinks we might be able to accelerate this transformation if we all took the simple step of pausing, contemplating, and reflecting every day at noon.  Similar to the Play As Being practice I sampled a while back, the personal potency of such a discipline is dramatic. Noon is a convenient time to sync up, but the coarseness time zones introduces a margin of error. Imagine if large numbers of people welcomed the sun every morning – a wave of transcendence would (en)circle the globe. Some kind of psychic beacon?

The idea that our technologies mirror our realities is common, though contemplating our reflection within these mirrors is less so. Our global communications system is not only the planet’s nervous system, but through computation and representation, it is becoming a 2-way mirror into our collective psyche.

In the past I have appreciated how distributed research has given way to tools which help aggregate many snowflakes of data into a meaningful snowbank. Flickr and Delicious taught us how to conduct distributed research on photos and hyperlinks, but Twitter has helped popularize aggregation around arbitrary structured data.  We are monitoring elections, and each other’s sexual habits. And the data doesn’t even need to be particularly well structured, as this research on the pulse of the nation’s mood demonstrates.

Now that we have glimpsed own collective moods, can we design the biofeedback loops for us to become collectively-aware (in addition to self-aware)? To put this another way, could be learn to actually control the coordinated output of the Noosphere eggs, instead of merely tracking their correlations with our global state.

If we could collectively broadcast one syllable into the universe, what would it be?

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