Critical Dialogue

Each time I go to a critique at the MFA program at Moore, I leave feeling so full. I am reminded time and again the value of the bond forged in the crucible of grad school and the power of shared experience. The relationships are not based on what any one of us brings to the table, but rather on the collective understanding of what it means to be in the place that we are. Together, there to aid, support, and even commiserate sometimes.
I think one of the most valuable forms of support is putting in the effort to have real critical dialogue. Not the dismissive or flat responses that is the unfortunate status quo in an average conversation. Rather, deep, meaningful questions preceded by careful observation with the goal of unpacking meaning and experience beyond the surface.

Thesis Excerpt from my writing today

I’ve been writing a lot today, making sure all my thoughts are coherent and well formed, so I thought I’d share a few sections that I developed today kind of out of the blue. I was contemplating dumping one fragment or just adding it as an endnote, but in rereading things today I realized that it fit into some existing ideas rather well, but in order to do so I had to add another section entirely to make the total argument evenly shaped. So, I would say I accidentally added another three and a half pages, whoops. Here’s a taste of the rough version.

Not Just What, but Where
            In addition to the way individuals interact with the Net reshaping society at large, the location of those interactions is having an impact as well. It would seem that those actions are clearly taking place “online”, wherever that is, it is important to realize that the location has and is changing, and as our perception and approval of the new system come more clearly into focus, it will in turn alter society yet again. This section will look at two examples of how the broad location switch on the Internet is enacting that change.

All Hail the Hive
            The first change in location is from connections made between two individuals tethered through personal computers, to connections made between anonymous users that exist exclusively in the digital world. What Jaron Lanier calls the “noosphere[i]” or the “hive mind” is quickly becoming the preferred way to find information, make decisions and determine societal norms. The standard analogy for which is that of a crowd of people guessing the weight of an ox in a marketplace. In the story, the average of the crowd’s guesses turn out to be more reliable than any individual’s. [ii] And so, in the case of the anonymous crowd of the Internet, power is given to the hive. The problem with the hive is, that it is not an individual, it is a nameless, faceless mass. It is not held to the same standard, nor does it hold the same values. Seeking the hive mind as the sum of all knowledge is to search for the popular answer, not the best answer and more importantly it elevates anonymous masses while reducing the vitality of individuals. Wikipedia is the most well known example of the hive mind in action. It was born out of a belief that there was an untapped resource in the excess brain power of the world’s minds. Pooling all those minds will, in the case of Wikipedia, be sufficient to create an astoundingly accurate and up to date encyclopedia covering everything from ancient history to pop culture. The broad idea is that eventually either the Internet into which this collective data has been poured or the mass of connected global minds will morph into a “super-human entity”.[iii]There are two things this vision fails to take into account. First, the hive mentality tends “to energize the inner troll, or bad actor, within humans.”[iv]In a virtual world built on fragmentation and anonymity, people do not tend towards cooperation and mutual edification, but remain as ever, glued to their own answers and to abusing anyone who crosses them in the form of “Trolling”. In the digital spaces of Wikipedia and the like, this is the status quo, not the exception. The other aspect that seems erroneously assumed about the hive mind super entity is the classic question of quantity and quality. There are those that believe at some scale quantity morphs into quality, that “a billion fragmentary insults will eventually yield wisdom.”[v]The problem with this is that it is at best, a theory, on that is much hypothesized and yet remains unproven, and is certainly not something into which we should entrust the framework of the Net. Jaron Lanier asks the question,

“How many… would need to be harnessed to replicate the achievements of, say, Albert Einstein? It seems to me that even if we could network all the potential aliens in the galaxy – quadrillions of them, perhaps – and get each of them to contribute some seconds to a physics wiki, we would not replicate the achievements of even one mediocre physicist, much less a great one.”[vi]
Lord of the Cloud

            The second location reconfiguration has been the recent development of “cloud computing”. In terms of technology, not much has changed that allowed this to happen, but what was necessary was for people to begin thinking differently about ownership. Previously, ownership has been broadly understood, at least in our culture, as a general rule that when you own something, you have it all to yourself, and that thing physically takes up some kind of space, even if it is only the space on a hard drive. However, fueled by impossibly fast and reliable Internet connectivity and perhaps frustration with the constant need for more storage space for an ever-expanding digital life, change has come in form of the cloud. It has become more efficient for content holders (Apple, Amazon and the like) to retain what is effectively one version of the content to which, when you make a purchase, you are given access.  The crucial shift is that your purchase no longer buys a personal copy, it merely give you access to their copy. The cloud works well and is in many ways more convenient and efficient than needing to manage your own content library, but before blindly accepting this new system, the implications of such a pivotal change to the definition of ownership must be fully understood. In a perfect world, the cloud works, but there are potential threats all around, each with the possibility of unbalancing the current equilibrium of ownership. From malicious hackers, simple power or Internet outages, to an example of human error that allowed users to log in to accounts with wrong passwords,[vii]the list of things that potentially separate you from the things you own is long, which starts to create a schism between the clouds definition of ownership that we are buying into and what is perhaps the innate sense of ownership that each of us understands and feels entitled to. But there is another troubling possibility, and that is the chance that those who own the cloud may decide that their control of the physical bits of data supersedes your right to access it, which puts the consumer in a tenuous position. An ironic example of this conflict occurred in “July 2009, when Amazon discovered it had accidently sold improperly licensed e-books of George Orwell’s 1984 and electronically obliterated them from every Kindle in existence.”[viii] If this error had been made with physical books, such a reaction would not have happened (just picture  a Bradburian scene from Farenheight 451 with armed stormtroopers pounding on doors in the dead of night and demanding the book)  but since the digital world operates largely outside of typical physical constraints, Amazon felt justified in trespassing our natural understanding of ownership in order to right its wrong. There are many benefits to a future in the cloud, but we should be wary of companies that are using the current lack of regulation to change the definition of what ownership really is. This new perspective of ownership impacts our identities in one clear way, it continues the shift of our field of vision from broad and temporally cognizant, to what is happening right now. You do not purchase an heirloom on the cloud, and you do not even have to worry if you have the physical space to hold the things you do purchase through it. It is another trend that is pushing society towards an exclusive focus on the “now”.

I’m sure there are some errors in there, but rest assured, I do plan on proofreading this thing before I hand it in.

And here is what I have so far

5 into 1 show

I have work in the upcoming 5 into 1 show being held at Moore. Each year the show features work of graduating students from the 5 philly art schools. It’s great to be selected (along with sara gersbach) and be recognized for my work. I’m honestly using this as a trial run for a few ideas for my thesis, so it was nice to be able to see how a few things worked in print and in the gallery. I am slightly confused by the fact that when I submitted work, it was through my program director, Paul, who told us about the show as the 5 school show. However, the invitation card clearly calls it a “sculpture” show. Well, my work is clearly not sculptural (and neither is sara’s), but it was accepted in, so I guess I shouldn’t feel awkward about that. Anyway, the reception is on June 2nd at Moore in the afternoon, so come and check it out. These are the prints I got into the show, but really, you need to see them in person, full size.

Social Status, Jake

Social Status, Joe

Social Status, Mallory

I want less

If there is one word that comes to mind when I think of the Internet, I think it would be “excess”. It seems that most people believe that anything worth doing is worth overdoing, redoing, parodying, meme-ing or subverting, all in the name of self expression. Just as all roads led to Rome, all fingers should be pointing towards Google. The culture that they have fostered for profit and ultimately exploitation of its willingly unpaid prosumer army is that of the notion that more content equals a good experience. But this is fundamentally flawed. I don’t want more, I want better. A simple google search tells this story. I receive in a tiny fraction of a second millions of results. Who needs that?

Yes, it does filter the results, but in order of the most popular, not most relevant. In its framework for allowing access to the entire Net, they have built in a homogenizing force that rewards popular sites with prime real estate in their search engine, thus circularly causing well SEO’d sites to grow while relegating all others to the forgotten back ally of the Web. If we combine this system with the way people are becoming unable to do anything other than a cursory search for a quick answer and with the blind faith that is placed in Google’s “doing good for humanity” mantra, we get people who are only aware of the most easily accessible, popular path. This is hardly an algorithm that helps humankind.

Found Identity

One part of my thesis brings up a digital world problem of other people having more control over your identity than you. Think about it, each image that is uploaded with you in it tells a story about your identity, but it doesn’t have to be you that posted them. Friends or complete strangers that have snapped a shot of you can post and comment without your knowledge, and whatever that image says about you becomes a part of your digital identity. Since people tend to trust a third party’s description instead of someone describing themselves, these extraneous bits of identity are often taken as more legitimate than anything you could post yourself. This also means that interaction in the social media sphere is practically mandated if you want any say about your own identity. Each of us is in an uphill battle, fighting for control of our virtual selves, but its a battle that can only be perpetually fought, never won and often lost.
After thinking about this I decided to attempt to track down every image on Facebook that has me in it that I did not post. So far I have gathered 175 of these “found images”, and now I am taking those and reconstructing self portraits from groups of them. I don’t think its possible to retake my virtual identity, but at the very least I want to know how I am presented.

Found Image Self-Portrait

The Business of Distraction

“Google, as the supplier of the Web’s principal navigational tools, also shapes our relationship with the content that it serves up so efficiently and in such profusion. The intellectual technologies it has pioneered promote the speedy, superficial skimming of information and discourage andy deep, prolonged engagement with a single argument, idea, or narrative. ‘Our goal,’ says Irene Au, ‘is to get users in and our really quickly. All our design decisions are based on that strategy.’ Google’s profits are tied directly to the velocity of people’s information intake. The faster we surf across the surface of the Web – the more links we click and pages we view – the more opportunities Google gains to collect information about us and to feed us advertisements. Its advertising system moreover, is explicitly designed to figure out which messages are most likely to grab our attention and then to place those message in our field of view. Every click we make on the Web marks a break in our concentration, a bottom-up disruption of our attention – and it’s in Google’s economic interest to make sure we click as often as possible. The last thing the company wants is to encourage leisurely reading or slow, concentrated thought. Google is, quite literally, in the business of distraction.” The Shallows, 156

This quote from The Shallows sums up one critical part of what my written thesis and my work is really about. The Internet cannot be viewed as a neutral force because it is being used and shaped by entities that have only their own goals in mind. Were this to be all I focused on, I could see some kind of pitchfork and torches moment where I urge everyone to rip out their wi-fi routers and ethernet cables. But instead, I see this as much more of a public service announcement. The Internet is already engrained in our society, and barring anything unforeseeable, there is no going back, and the truth is that its high points are a continual benefit to the world. So, surf with caution. Browse with a grain of salt. Click deliberately. And take a moment to pause and take in your surroundings, even if they are digital. Your brain will thank you.

Speaking of Distractions
Sometimes I think best after I have been sufficiently distracted from the task at hand. That can take the form of a game (Carcassonne, Kingdom Builder, Survive!…) or a tv show/movie, but tonight it was baking. I enjoy cooking immensely, and most nights I cook for my wife and I. However, I’m not much of a baker, so this afternoon I expanded my horizons a bit and made a Vanilla Pecan Danish Puff Pastry. I must say, I’m pretty proud of myself.

Thesis Preface & Intro 4/4/12

Here is my preface and Introduction for my thesis as they stand right now. 

            I want to start by giving you some inside information as to why I find it important to be asking questions of technology. There could be a general concern for how people embrace the growing world of technology, or a simple fascination with how the virtual world is beginning to shape individuals’ psyches. But my interest lies on a much more personal level. I am part of the Millennial Generation. This generation is defined by being the first digital natives. They grew up with regular computer access. The World Wide Web hit mainstream and quickly became ordinary in daily lives. Digital technology became more present and accessible, bringing to life the science fiction of cell phones in everyone’s pockets and similar gadgets from forward looking novels. However, despite my date of birth placing me well within that definition, my siblings were a part of the previous generation, Generation X.  This generation was formed in entirely different circumstances. In relation to the digital technologies that so impacted the Millennials, Generations X’ers were introduced to its possibilities and promises, but did not witness it pervasiveness. Generation X saw the signs of the great transition from analog to digital, but remained rooted in the analog.

            There was a generational divide between siblings in my house that I believe in some respects gave me a unique perspective. My family would be classified as “late adopters”. They were not anti-technology or luddites in any way, their frame of reference was simply the physical world. That was their comfort zone. I can remember having a computer in the house when I was fairly young, but it was tucked away in the attic, out of sight, out of mind. Our first connection to the Internet frontier came in the early 2000’s during my high school career. I got my first cell phone in 2004, and it was the free one that came with the plan. The first time I used a digital camera was in 2005. I never owned (nor much played) a gaming console until 2007 when I was in college. All of this could mean almost nothing. There are plenty of other people with similar stories, but for me it allows me to start looking at the philosophical questions that have come about through this massive shift in frame of reference. I grew up in a home that was most comfortable in an analog world. I now live and work in the midst of the current society of digital connectivity. So, my research, the questions I ask and the work I make are not simply academic in nature. Essentially I am asking how to best exist in a world that is hurtling towards virtual existence.

            Changes in technology have an immense power to change us as people. Let me be clear, we do not set out to change ourselves through the tools we produce, rather our goal is often simply to find a better way of performing a given task. But each new technology in turn manufactures new ways of going through life, and the resulting behavioral shifts have a deeper impact on our identities than we could ever foresee.  In this paper I will address the question, “Does technology cause a shift in how we perceive our relationships and ourselves?” Then I will discuss two implications of that shift in depth in a kind of cost-benefit analysis of our current technology situation. It is within these two areas that my visual work is situated, asking the questions that I feel are being glazed over, ignored, or even covered up for the sake of advancement. However, I am not anti-technology; I am skeptical of all the marketing of shiny new things without being willing to ask difficult questions about how using them will change us. My conclusion is an ambiguous one. There are clear global and individual benefits to a life filled with technologies, but on the other hand, those things exert an unrelenting tug towards becoming something I do not want to become.

… There are about 24 more pages right now and I’m still going strong. Wish me luck. 
And don’t tell me about spelling/grammatical errors.