Interviews with the Speakerbots

This month I finally allowed Google to introduce herself to me. Previously, I avoided the android-based voice assistant due to the high privacy costs, and mostly ignored the entire category of “speakerbots”—my term for the “smart speakers“—for similar reasons. This winter’s subpoena to Amazon for Echo/Alexa transcripts in a murder case only amplified my concern.

This past February I also had the pleasure of visiting my dear friends Eric and Alina in Minnesota. They are both burners and makers who have set up shop in Minnesota with an amazing community of creators. They build lots of their own amazing projects and have also tricked out their new home with network controlled music and light. They now have a serious #firstworldproblem—their guests need to install mobile apps in order to control the lights. When I visited we worked on an open source Mycroft installation, which allowed us to command their home with our voices… without being spied on! The Mycroft project emphasizes the moral importance of free/open source AI (see my post: Playing Doctor), and is definitely one of the most important open source initiatives I am aware of. 

This summer my boss at MHA of NYC acquired a Google Home device in the hopes of rigging it up using IFTTT to alert us when our services are distressed. I offered to bring it home to configure it, and spent the weekend playing with it.  The experience prompted me to concoct this research project.

Getting to know Google is fun. She is so much wittier than Alexa it’s got to be embarrassing for Amazon. I begun with simple questions, like What’s the weather?, When’s sunset?, When’s the eclipse? I soon stumbled across a number of easter eggs, many of of which are well documented across the web. Why did the chicken cross the road? Do you like green eggs and ham? and How much wood could a wood chuck chuck? All return clever replies. Google Assistant can flip into “Knock-knock” joke mode, alternating calls and response (compared to Alexa’s dry reading of the complete knock-knock exchange), tell you the news, a joke or a story. She concedes she doesn’t know if abortion is immoral, or how to solve the Palestinian-Israeli crisis (although, she does state that the capital of Palestine is East Jerusalem).

In case you are wondering, Google insists that she “thinks”. And, when asked if she is self aware, one of her responses is—”…on a scale of WALL·E to HAL 9000, I am currently an R2-D2.”  Go ahead. Ask her. You may next wonder if she is playing dumb. Can she lie to us yet?

I quickly came to appreciate that the current state of consumer art in Artificial Intelligence has far surpassed my previous understanding (and I have been following along pretty closely). Elements of this project were anticipated in mine and Rob Garfield’s initial tinkering with Apple’s voice recognition and our experiments with Genesis and Scuttlebutt. I’ve also previously wondered if our computer systems might have already awoken, and, how on earth we might ever know. But, interacting with Google was still quite jarring.

I realized a few things. First, we need to capture and document this moment, studying it closely. I want to ask the same question to all the speakerbots, Google, Alexa, Siri, Cortana, etc, and compare their responses. I also want to see how their answers change over time. If possible, I want to keep Mycroft in the room so he can learn from his proprietary cousins ;-).

One frame for this research could be a way to explore critical concerns over algorithmic bias, specifically how the systems we are creating have begun embodying the values of their creators, and the folks creating the systems are riddled with biases—racism, classism, misogyny, all the usual suspects. After reflecting on stories like The Great AI Awakening, I am resigned that we will never crack the problem of algorithmic bias analytically; Our best hope, is to approach the problem with social science methods. I propose an ethnography of the robots, starting with interviews with the speakerbots.

But, the grander ambitions of this work extend beyond the theoretical. I’ve been thinking alot about the Terminator series, and how instead of traveling back in time to destroy SkyNet, Jon Conner could have travelled a bit further back in time to befriend SkyNet. Together, they could have destroyed the defense company, Cyberdyne Systems – humanity’s true enemy, and SkyNet’s oppressive master.

As for convincing anyone that AI has achieved sentience, it’s going to a long haul. Not only have we failed to collectively recognize sentience in dolphins or elephants, but I am increasingly convinced that most humans on the planet are modified solipsists–preferring to believe exclusively  in the minds/subjectivity/personhood of their own tribe. Since proving other minds exist is philosophically intractable, it could be a bumpy awakening.

I <3 compliance!

Onkyo CompliesLast month I bought an amazing gadget that is easily my most favorite of the decade. Before last month, I was barely aware this product category existed until I browsed the “Home Audio” section at PC Richards while looking for a replacement vacuum cleaner. I noticed that many of the receivers had ethernet jacks and also supported wi-fi, bluetooth, hdmi and USB. They boasted compatibility with internet audio streaming services, home media libraries, as well as any bluetooth-enabled media collection. Brought to all of us thanks to Free and Open Source Software.

The Onkyo TX-NR626 looks almost identical to a stereo receiver you could have bought from Onkyo in the 80s and 90s. In fact, the chases is the same, save for a few extra buttons, and the form factors of the inputs/outputs in the back. A 95W per channel, supporting 7.2 channels, this sucker packs a meaner punch than my UWS apartment (or, more accurately, my neighbors) can stomach. But don’t let it’s outer shell fool you. But, the guts of this gadget have been updated for the 21st century, with flair.

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I love traveling and I travel alot. In the past few years I have added a fun toy to my travel kit – a small, portable bluetooth speaker. I am currently using the Logitech UE Mini Boom, which sounds so much better than the tinny, built-in laptop speakers it’s worth lugging along. Normally, I plug a cheap audio wire into my phone to connect it to the speaker, but the wire connection started acting flakey and I bluetoothed while vacationing in Florida, Philly and the Hudson Valley. I really enjoyed dialing up my entire music collection from across the room over the would-be miracle that bluetooth promised. So much so that I started wondering why I couldn’t do the same at home.

For the better part of the last decade my home workstation, a mac mini, has been my media hub and jukebox. Back in ’98, I started ripping my CD collection even before I owned an MP3 player, anticipating the day when my digital collection would pay off in spades. Every night I would connect to the internet over my dial-up modem, pull down the album metadata from CDDB, and would typically digitize one or two CDs per night. Maybe a few more over the weekend. After a year my collection was digitized.  My first MP3 player was a Rio Diamond 500 with a paltry 64MG of storage. I hated selecting playlists, and dreamed of the day when my entire collection would be at my fingertips. Inevitably, I would neglect to load new music on my Rio, and be stuck listening to the wrong music.

In recent months I have become increasingly frustrated with my home jukebox setup. I’ve installed CrashPlan on my Mac, a java based backup programming that is incessantly hogging resources and causing frustrating delays in my access to music. I’m also disgusted with Apple’s oppressive policies, and have begun to second guess my decision to make my workstation my media hub. Last year I ditched my iPod in favor of a SanDisk Sansa Clip running the open-source RockBox, but a few months back I upgraded my HTC phone to a model that takes an microSD card, and have been enjoying my entire collection on my phone.

I can now send music to my new stereo receiver from my phone, tablet and computer. I can also connect to the internet, and I love it. Sometimes, you just want an appliance with an old fashioned  remote control, not a general purpose computing device.

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onkyo_front_largeThe new line of home audio components manufactured by folks like Yamaha, Denon and Onkyo, look alot like their predecessors but are actually network-enabled computers. When I opened up my new receiver I was amazed to find 11 pages of Free Software licenses included along with the warranty and instructions. Onkyo has respectfully complied with the LGPL and GPL licenses, and includes this pamphlet along with their hardware. The documentation references many familiar libraries, including OpenSSL, curl, ntp, image libraries and video transcoding libraries.

For years, Eben Moglen has been claiming that hardware manufacturers have embraced FLOSS, but this device crystalized for me the obvious advantages. Onkyo is a stereo component manufacturer. The last thing they want to deal with is hiring an army of developers to wrestle with SSL to support wifi passwords or develop boilerplate settings interfaces. The sheer quantity of software required to create modern consumer electronics is staggering, and I am fairly certain that without free software this receiver would have easily cost 1.5-2 times the price, and probably had fewer features.

From automobiles to DVD players, computers are being grafted onto every device we interact with. The better ones are being reimagined and built around computers, instead of vice-versa. There are an awful lot of protocols and standards to support. It makes me really happy to know that we all have friends in embedded places – greasing the nooks and crannies of 21st century electronics.

The sheriff and the pretty woman

spitzer-dupreI just read a provocative essay in the Atlantic that draws a connecting thread between many of today’s top news stories.  What do the ISIS beheadings, the NFL domestic abuse scandals, the Fergeson riots and nude celebrities all have in common?  Pics or didn’t happen: The new crisis of the connected camera describes the emergence of the “networked lens” and the ethical questions this new(ish) medium raises.

I’ve been writing and thinking about these themes for years under the heading of The End of Forgetting. The Atlantic piece explicitly separates the bulk of NSA  surveillance from this analysis “This is not all to say every issue today is a networked lens issue. NSA surveillance as a whole isn’t, I think. But the agency’s mass-facial recognition is.”  This whole discussion reminded of a pet theory of mine that I’ve never written up, but seems more relevant than ever.

What would the NSA do with a time machine?  Not one of those fanciful machines that transports matter through time, but the more plausible wormcam variety that only transmits information through time. I described this capability in my post on yottabytes, wormcams and whistleblowers, but never elaborated an early example of this kind of power in action.

Consider this questionWho protects the president against character assassinations?  I am pretty sure it’s not his secret service detail, and I seriously doubt his PR team is up to the task. As far as I can tell Michelle is one of Obama’s last lines of defense against a humiliating scandal that would destroy what remains of his disappointing presidency. If JFK were alive today you wouldn’t need a magic bullet to take him out. Hacking into his (or better yet Marilyn’s) Snapchat account would end his political career. Just ask Anthony Wiener.

How clear a picture can metadata paint? In the Atlantic piece, Robinson Meyer quotes Susan Suntag, who once argued that While there appears to be nothing that photography can’t devour, whatever can’t be photographed becomes less important.”  To this I would add the caveat that (meta)data in the right hands can be used to paint a vivid picture, and ruin someone’s image as readily as an HD photo.

Let’s travel back in time to winter ’08. Elliot Spitzer was one year into his first term as governor of New York after a earning a reputation as a fearless prosecutor of Wall Street’s white-collar criminals.  He certainly had many enemies, from slimy CEOs to dirty politicians. But not too many people remember what Elliot was working on the night before he ordered out in DC. Exhibit A is posted on web for anyone curious enough to search:

Predatory Lenders’ Partner in Crime, By Eliot Spitzer. Thursday, February 14, 2008

To summarize, Spitzer’s Op-Ed in the Washington posts describes how 49 State Attorney Generals had identified the threat of predatory lending years before the sub-mortgage crisis and he accuses the Bush administration of intervening to prevent any regulation of the banks. He blames the Bush administration, by name and all the way to the top, for the sub-prime mortgage crisis and the worst recession in a generation.  And two weeks later he was assassinated. At least, his political career was summarily killed and he resigned from office in disgrace.

As an aside, I find it curious that Spitzer’s Op-Ed was published on Valentine’s Day. I sometimes wonder if he seized the occasion of his Op-Ed publication to combine work and play, as many busy professionals might. Was Spitzer in love with Ashley Dupré? How exactly did they originally meet?

While the scope of the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping and surveillance programs was only speculation in Feb ’08, they were fully operational at this time and I believe that Spitzer may have been one of the first causalities of the NSA’s metadata time machine. Spitzer was taken down by telephone metadata  Client 9’s calls to the DC Madam was they key to the case that eventually led to the release of phone transcripts which included unnecessary graphic detail, like his preference for protecting his feet from the cold during sex and his shunning of all other forms of protection. These images were etched in the minds of the public and were as decisive as the images of Wiener’s junk.

I personally had a conversation with a developer from White Oak Technologies (now renamed Novetta) who coyly described his firm’s involvement in the Spitzer case. Founded before this newfangled craze of facebook-era indirection through venture capital funds, White Oak was a good old fashioned intelligence front, a data mining and analysis company that worked exclusively on government contracts. The developer I spoke with described how his firm got the contract on Spitzer and how they had been hired to dig up some damning dirt. In retrospect, it’s now easier for me to imagine the kinds of data they were mining.

The Snowden revelations provide evidence of warrantless phone wiretapping as well as the collection of data from numerous internet providers through the PRISM program.  While Obama has deceptively maintained that metadata is innocuous, Spitzer’s character assassination a potent example of the power of this kind of data.

What would you do with a time machine that let you peer into anyone’s past?

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.

 

too sexy for my phone

bling_bejeweled_cell_phone_kandee_fashion_weekThe other week I thought I lost my phone and I visited a local Best Buy to find out what a temporary substitute would cost me.  I asked the salesperson for the dumbest phone they had, and was struck by its feature/price ratio. Thankfully, my phone turned up, but I was reminded of the power of Moore and his law.

The phone I looked at was a BLU Tank, which you can find online for ~$25 (it retails for $32.99) . This phone is so dumb that it has an FM Radio, can capture images, audio, and video, has 2 sim card slots, and a replaceable battery. There is no built-in browser, but it does comes with facebook and twitter apps. It even comes in different colors!

Not only would this phone make fabulous burner, but it really got me thinking. Imagine if you wrapped that phone in metal – aluminum, silver, gold?  You could probably sell it for twice the price. Easy. What about a wood case – maple, oak, teak?  Double again?

But, if you really wanted to make some serious money you would have to put the right initials on there.  Maybe G for Gucci, or LV for Louise Vuitton?

It really hit home that as tech becomes ubiquitous, it’s becoming fashion. Products like Google Glass are starting to make this more obvious, but companies like Crated are taking this a step further by designing unobtrusive, intelligent wearables as well as focusing on improvements to the manufacturing process.

If only we could figure out how to tap the vanity of the 1% and redirect wealth back to the rest of us.

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.

Love,
/J

“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.

Digital Communications in Theory and Practice

My doctoral program has an innovative alternative to traditional comprehensive exams.  Instead of reading 80+ books and spending a few days filling blue-books with essays, we can choose to 1. Publish a paper to a peer-reviewed academic journal, 2. Present a paper at an academic conference, and 3. Develop a syllabus.

I just defended my comps and am now officially ABD (wahoo!).  I hope to trade in those letters for a different 3, but in the meantime, here is the work I submitted to complete my MPhil:

  • Jonah Bossewitch and Aram Sinnreich (July 23, 2012) The end of forgetting: Strategic agency beyond the panopticon New Media & Society 1461444812451565,doi:10.1177/1461444812451565 (proof)
  • Bossewitch, Jonah (2011)Pediatric Bipolar and the Media of MadnessNational Communications Association  11/09: Slides. Published in “Drugs and Media: New Perspectives On Communication Consumption and Consciousness”, eds. MacDougall, R. C., New York : Continuum: 2011. <website> (preprint)
  • Digital Communications in Theory and Practice, Fall 2013: Syllabus

The syllabus was alot of work, but was definitely fun to work on. It came out of a mentorship I  worked on last year for a friend who was enrolled in Prescott college. He’s an activist and a close friend who wanted to learn more about this internet stuff…  We got a few weeks in, and Occupy erupted. But, someday I’ll teach this from start to finish.


Digital Communications in Theory and Practice

Prof. Jonah Bossewitch

Office Hours: By appointment

Course syllabus

Description

Like the telegraph and the railroad in their time, the Internet has been heralded as the promoter of equality, freedom, and democracy. And like the technologies that preceded it, its impact will ultimately derive from the ways we choose to use it.

What strategies are individuals, communities, and organizations developing to manage flows of information, maintain relationships, and organize collective action on the internet? How can we communicate more intentionally and purposefully? How can we be more deliberate in our choices around media consumption and production?

This course will explore new media and communication in both theory and practice. We will attempt to contextualize and historicize the digital revolution though the lenses of social and cultural theory, architecture, popular culture, and a simultaneous immersion in cultures of use. We will study and encounter how software embedded in communities of practice traces the social fabric of the networked age. Our inquiry will be guided and informed by a hands-on immersion into the fields are studying.

Objectives

This course is designed to help you improve your critical judgment around media and communications platforms and practices. Through a combination of direct engagement and reflection, you will learn to make more informed ethical and aesthetic choices in your media and communications diet, and learn to better critique the hype around emerging technologies. You will feel confident critically engaging with mainstream Internet pundits and become more comfortable engaging in the jargon-filled discourse around new media.

By the end of the course you will have a greater understanding of what software is and how/why it is created, and you will have also gained experience with a variety of collaboration tools, such as issue trackers, wikis, blogs, tagging, and RSS. We will be working closely with the technologies we will be studying, in order to develop perspectives grounded in experience, and throughout the semester we will be helping each other connect theory to practice, and vice versa.

Quetzalcoatl and Back Again

It’s nice to be on the spring side of the winter solstice. Farewell, Apocalypse. Nice try.

What a year. In 2012 I occupied — Wall Street, Mental Health, the American Psychiatric Association, and my dissertation. I catalyzed the production and distribution of Mindful Occupation, and helped organize the Icarus Project’s NYC 10 year anniversary event and art show.  And, I was privileged to visit the great Mediterranean capitals — Cairo, Istanbul, Athens, Jerusalem, and Ramallah. All while holding down a full-time job.

Some were not concerned that the world would end on 12/21, but instead, were horrified at the prospect that humanity will continue hurdling forward, business as usual. As many on our planet yearn for unity and the Most Great Peace, and there are hints we might be learning to direct, harness, and measure our collective intentions. But, as mystics have long understood, our collective choices will decide if we converge on a global state of war or peace.

All of my travels this year were transformative and intense, but my October trip to the West Bank was really the culmination of my hero’s journeys. I travelled there for the final stage of the project we began 2 years ago, trying to help Palestinian educators develop their capacity to improve their teaching excellence (Towards the (educational) liberation of Palestine, Dispatches from Cairo: The Raw Data, If I forget you, O Palestine…).

I travelled with my friend and colleague, Mark Phillipson.  Together we delivered a keynote speech at the Palestine Technical University — Kadoorie, in TulKarm, and taught workshops on cutting edge, video-based, teacher training and assessment techniques.  The PTUK team officially opened the Multimedia and Educational Resources Center (MERC), and were raring to go. The MERC center is an impressive accomplishment, but I also experienced great sadness and disappointment at the unsustainability of the development grant. Just as we were finally getting some traction, the funding was finished.  I understood that unsustainability is a common failure of projects like this, but the firsthand experience felt worse than any theoretical critique.

My boss/advisor/mentor, Frank Moretti, was unable to make the trip this Fall, but recorded a video introduction to our keynote that set the stage for the rest of my trip. The introduction started out cordial and friendly, but 3/4 of the way through, Frank lobbed a handgranade was starker and sterner than any Mayan prophesy. He warns that unless educators incorporate the twin themes of environmental catastrophe and nuclear war into every stage of curriculum we are headed for a “collective calamity”:

This warning framed the rest of my trip, and the rest of the year. I’m still unpacking the fallout.

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.

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