Monthly Archives: March 2010

Jim Reekes

Posted by PH on March 28, 2010
Digital Literacy, Music & Technology / No Comments

Jim who? Jim Reekes is the gentleman who designed many of the Mac system sounds including that start-up sound. This a recent interview with him (posted February 11th of this year) from a Dutch TV program called One More Thing:

A fascinating and amusing insight into the machinations of corporate culture. Interesting also to associate a personality to the sounds our machines make and which we inevitably take for granted.

[Via Create Digital Music]


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The Computational Turn

Posted by PH on March 17, 2010
Digital Literacy, Education, Narrative, Visual Culture / No Comments

On Tuesday 9th March I attended the Computational Turn conference at Swansea University. Very good it was too, with the wide range of speakers packed into a single day all having a diverse set of approaches to the main theme. Some of the papers were very challenging, and—whilst not all were of particular interest to me—many shone light into areas I had barely perceived previously, let alone considered in any deliberate way. The highlights of the day were the day’s two keynote speakers: N. Katherine Hayles opening the conference and Lev Manovich closing it.

N. Katherine Hayles

N. Katherine Hayles

Hayles outlined the rationale for the “computational turn.” She began by asking how many books could we read in a lifetime. If we read one a day between the ages of 15 and 85, that turns out to be 25,550. Not many compared to the total number of books available. The question becomes, what if we could analyze a whole corpus of books—all the books ever written on WWII, say, or all the books written about Aristotle—using computers? What would this type of mass analysis reveal?

Of course the next question would have to be, an analysis on what basis? Computers can’t “read” in the same way humans can. They may be able to detect patterns in the data—frequency, repetition, structure—but that is a far cry from the type of hermeneutic interpretation that humans are so good at. Quoting Tim Lenoir, she suggests that we “forget meaning and follow the data streams.” Starting with meaning always embodies too many assumptions: if we start with the analytics we can work out what it all means later. She then went on to illustrate her thesis by showing the initial results of her computational analysis of Danielewski’s Only Revolutions.

The Q&A session ranged across a wide range of topics, all of which Hayles dealt with expertly:

  • Nigel Thrift’s “technological unconscious” was discussed, the observation that assumptions and limitations are embedded within the technologies we use which are largely unnoticed and unseen. (An idea that seems very close to McLuhan’s theories about media.)
  • There was talk of the “adaptive unconscious,” which posits a mind that is effectively a type of internal distributed network where the unconscious is not a Freudian dark place but an active participant in cognition and decision-making.
  • There was talk of the “Baldwin Effect,” an elaboration on evolutionary theory which suggests that specific inherited traits are emphasized by cultural behaviour.
  • Finally, Hayles talked of culture moving from a deep-attention mode (related to print) into a hyper-attention mode (related to electronic media).

All heady stuff. How some of these issues relates to the computational turn I’m not quite sure, but the whole session was never less than stimulating.

Lev Manovich

Lev Manovich

Lev Manovich’s talk was mainly concerned with his projects, all of which are related to visualizations of large bodies of visual data: one million Manga pages, all 3480 Time magazine covers, Vertov movies, the way saturation changes over time in modern painting. He also showed off the Cultural Analytics software his Software Studies initiative has been developing. Here’s one of his Manga visualizations (stolen from his CultureVis photostream):

Visualization of 50,000 Manga pages

Visualization of 50,000 Manga pages

The accompanying text reads:

X axis: Grey scale standard deviation (measured per page)
Y axis: Entropy (measured per page)

This visualization shows how cultural analytics approach allows us to map continuous style space of a cultural data set. In the current visualization, the pages which have more contrast appear on the right; the pages which have no grey tones but only black and white are on the bottom right; and the pages which have a full range of grey tone (and thus more “realism” ) on the top. Every page in the dataset is situated in the space defined by these extremes.

Here’s another example (from here) showing a subset of the Time magazine covers mapped out in the Cultural Analytics software:

Time Magazine covers

Time Magazine analytics

The accompanying text reads:

Exploring a set of 450 Time covers (sampled from the complete set of 4553 covers 1923-2009 by taking every 10th image). Mousing over points reveals larger images and metadata.

I’ve only really presented here the bookends of the Computational Turn conference. There was much else of value, some of which I intend to follow up in my own work. A special thanks must go to Dr. David Berry for organizing the conference, for attracting such marvellous speakers to Swansea, and for the invitation. Thanks also to Sian Rees for coordinating the event and for providing such a warm welcome.

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Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou – Gbeti Madjro

Posted by PH on March 11, 2010
Music & Technology / No Comments

This is super-funky:

[Via BoingBoing]


The Future of Books?

Craig Mod has just published a thoughtful, insightful, and beautifully-presented essay on the future of books in the digital era, using the emergence of devices like the Kindle and the iPad as his focus:

In printed books, the two-page spread was our canvas. It’s easy to think similarly about the iPad. Let’s not. The canvas of the iPad must be considered in a way that acknowledge the physical boundaries of the device, while also embracing the effective limitlessness of space just beyond those edges.

We’re going to see new forms of storytelling emerge from this canvas. This is an opportunity to redefine modes of conversation between reader and content. And that’s one hell of an opportunity if making content is your thing.


This essay could usefully be cross-referenced with Part 2 of Scott McCloud‘s Reinventing Comics from 2000. In other words, some of what’s on offer here is not that new. However, the distinction between Formless and Definite Content is new (to me, at least) and provides a convincing armature around which the essay revolves. And if you need convincing about the inevitability of the move away from printed matter, here it is.

An excellent piece of work, highly recommended. The page must die!

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Bruce Sterling at Transmediale

Posted by PH on March 01, 2010
Digital Literacy, Narrative, Visual Culture / No Comments

Here’s a video of a presentation made by Bruce Sterling on 6th February 2010 at the Transmediale Futurity Now! festival in Berlin. The theme is “atemporality,” the sense that new media has moved us beyond modernism, beyond postmodernism, beyond all the “grand narratives” of traditional historical discourse. Sterling asks how we survive in this new environment and offers a range of never-less-than interesting and stimulating strategies for designers, artists, and academics. Here are a couple of taster quotes:

1) The Frankenstein Mashup (aka sampling, collage, bricolage):

So how do we just — like — sound out our new scene? What can we do to liven things up, especially as creative artists? Well, the immediate impulse is going to be the Frankenstein Mashup. Because that’s the native expression of network culture. The Frankenstein Mashup is to just take elements of past, present, and future and just collide ‘em together, in sort of a collage. More or less semi-randomly, like a Surrealist “exquisite corpse.” You can do useful and interesting things in that way, but I don’t really think that offers us a great deal. Even when it’s done very deftly, it tends to lead to the kind of levelling blandness of “World Music.” That kind of world music that’s middle-of-the-road disco music which includes pygmy nose-flutes or sitars. This kind of thing is tragically easy to do, but not really very effective. It’s cheap to do. It’s very punk rock. It’s very safety pins and plastic bags. But it’s missing a philosophical high-end…

2) Generative Art:

Then there are other elements which are native to our period that didn’t really work before, such as generative art. I take generative art quite seriously. I’d like to see it move into areas like generative law, or maybe generative philosophy. The thing I like about generative art is that it drains human intentionality out of the art project. Say, in generative manufacturing, you are writing code for a computer fabricator, and you yourself don’t know the outcome of this code. You do not know how it will physically manifest itself. Therefore you end up with creative objects that are bleached of human intent. Now there is tremendous artistic intent — within the software. But the software is not visible in the finished generative product. To me, it’s of great interest that these objects and designs and animations and so forth now exist among us. Because they are, in a strange way, divorced from any kind of historical ideology. They are just not human.

3) Gothic High-Tech vs Favela Chic:

We are in a period which I think is dominated by two great cultural signifiers. An analog system that belonged to our parents, which has been shot full of holes. It is the symbol of the ruined castle. Gothic High-Tech. The ruins of the unsustainable. And the other symbol is the favela slum, Favela Chic, the informalized, illegalized, heavily networked structure of the emergent new order. The things that the twenty first century is doing that are genuinely novel, that have not been domesticated or brought into sociality. The Gothic High-Tech and the Favela Chic. These are very obvious to me, as a novelist and creative artist. Perhaps you won’t see things this way — but I think the life-span of this will be about ten years. A new generation will arise who does not need things explained to them in this way. They will not wonder at a slogan like “Futurity Now!” because they will have never known anything different.

Fascinating stuff. Go for it:

[Via BoingBoing. Transcript of the speech here].

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