29 August 2013

Signposts for the Future of Computal Media


I would like to begin to outline what I think are some of the important trajectories to keep an eye on in regard to what I increasingly think of as computal media. That is, the broad area dependent on computational processing technologies, or areas soon to be colonised by such technologies.

In order to do this I want to examine a number of key moments that I want to use to structure thinking about the softwarization of media.  By “softwarization”, I means broadly the notion of Andreessen (2011) that “software is eating the world” (see also Berry 2011; Manovich 2013).  Softwarization is then a process of the application of computation (see Schlueter Langdon 2003), in this case, to all forms of historical media, but also in the generation of born-digital media. 

However, this process of softwarization is tentative, multi-directional, contested, and moving on multiple strata at different modularities and speeds. We therefore need to develop critiques of the concepts that drive these processes of softwarization but also to think about what kind of experiences that make the epistemological categories of the computal possible. For example, one feature that distinguishes the computal is its division into surfaces, rough or pleasant, and concealed inaccessible structures. 

It seems to me that this task is rightly one that is a critical undertaking. That is, as an historical materialism that understands the key organising principles of our experience are produced by ideas developed with the array of social forces that human beings have themselves created. This includes understanding the computal subject as an agent dynamically contributing and responding to the world. 

So I want to now look at a number of moments to draw out some of what I think are the key developments to be attentive to in computal media. That is, not the future of new media as such, but rather “possibilities” within computal media, sometimes latent but also apparent. 

The Industrial Internet

A new paradigm called the “industrial internet” is emerging, a computational, real-time streaming ecology that is reconfigured in terms of digital flows, fluidities and movement. In the new industrial internet the paradigmatic metaphor I want to use is real-time streaming technologies and the data flows, processual stream-based engines and the computal interfaces and computal “glue” holding them together. This is the internet of things and the softwarization of everyday life and represents the beginning of a post-digital experience of computation as such.

This calls for us to stop thinking about the digital as something static, discrete and object-like and instead consider 'trajectories' and computational logistics. In hindsight, for example, it is possible to see that new media such as CDs and DVDs were only ever the first step on the road to a truly computational media world. Capturing bits and disconnecting them from wider networks, placing them on plastic discs and stacking them in shops for us to go visit and buy seems bizarrely pedestrian today. 

Taking account of such media and related cultural practices becomes increasing algorithmic and as such media becomes itself mediated via software. At the same time previous media forms are increasingly digitalised and placed in databases, viewed not on original equipment but accessed through software devices, browsers and apps. As all media becomes algorithmic, it is subject to monitoring and control at a level to which we are not accustomed – e.g. Amazon mass deletion of Orwell’s1984 from personal Kindles in 2009 (Stone 2009).

The imminent rolling out of the sensor-based world of the internet of things is underway with companies such as Broadcom developing Wireless Internet Connectivity for Embedded Devices, "WICED Direct will allow OEMs to develop wearable sensors -- pedometers, heart-rate monitors, keycards -- and clothing that transmit everyday data to the cloud via a connected smartphone or tablet" (Seppala 2013). Additionally Apple is developing new technology in this area with its iBeacon software layer which uses Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) to create location-aware micro-devices, and "can enable a mobile user to navigate and interact with specific regions geofenced by low cost signal emitters that can be placed anywhere, including indoors, and even on moving targets" (Dilger 2013). In fact, the "dual nature of the iBeacons is really interesting as well. We can receive content from the beacons, but we can be them as well" (Kosner 2013).  This relies on Bluetooth version 4.0, also called "Bluetooth Smart", that supports devices that can be powered for many months by a small button battery, and in some cases for years. Indeed,
BLE is especially useful in places (like inside a shopping mall) where GPS location data my not be reliably available. The sensitivity is also greater than either GPS or WiFi triangulation. BLE allows for interactions as far away as 160 feet, but doesn’t require surface contact (Kosner 2013).
These new computational sensors enable Local Positioning Systems (LPS) or micro-location, in contrast to the less precise technology of Global Positioning Systems (GPS). These "location based applications can enable personal navigation and the tracking or positioning of assets" to the centimetre, rather than the metre, and hence have great potential as tracking systems inside buildings and facilities (Feldman 2009).

Bring Your Own Device (BYOD)

This shift also includes the move from relatively static desktop computers to mobile computers and to tablet based devices – consumerisation of tech. Indeed, according to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU 2012: 1), in 2012 there were 6 billion mobile devices (up from 2.7 billion in 2006), with YouTube alone streaming video media of 200 terrabytes per day. Indeed, by the end of 2011, 2.3 billion people (i.e. one in three) were using the Internet (ITU 2012: 3).

Users are creating 1.8 zettabytes of data annually by 2011 and this is expected to grow to 7.9 zettabytes by 2015 (Kalakota 2011). To put this in perspective, a zettabyte is is equal to 1 billion terabytes – clearly at these scales the storage sizes become increasingly difficult for humans to comprehend. A zettabyte is roughly equal in size to twenty-five billion Blu-ray discs or 250 billion DVDs.

The acceptance by users and providers of the consumerisation of technology has also opened up the space for the development of "wearables" and these highly intimate devices are under current development, with the most prominent example being Google Glass. Often low-power devices, making use of the BLE and iBeacon type technologies, they augment our existing devices, such as the mobile phone, rather than outright replacing them, but offer new functionalities, such as fitness monitors, notification interfaces, contextual systems and so forth. 

The Personal Cloud (PC)

These pressures are creating an explosion in data and a corresponding expansion in various forms of digital media (currently uploaded to corporate clouds). As a counter move to the existence of massive centralised corporate systems there is a call for Personal Cloud (PCs), a decentralisation of data from the big cloud providers (Facebook, Google, etc.) into smaller personal spaces (see Personal Cloud 2013). Conceptually this is interesting in relation to BYOD. 

This of course changes our relationship to knowledge, and the forms of knowledge which we keep and are able to use. Archives are increasingly viewed through the lens of computation, both in terms of cataloging and storage but also in terms of remediation and configuration. Practices around these knowledges are also shifting, and as social media demonstrates, new forms of sharing and interaction are made possible. Personal Cloud also has links to decentralised authentication technologies (e.g. DAuth vs OAuth).

Digital Media, Social Reading, Sprints

It has taken digital a lot longer that many had thought to provide a serious challenge to print, but it seems to me that we are now in a new moment in which digital texts enable screen-reading, if it is not an anachronism to still call it that, as a sustained reading practice. The are lots of experiments in this space, e.g. my notion of the “minigraph” (Berry 2013) or the mini-monograph, technical reports, the “multigraph” (McCormick 2013), pamphlets, and so forth. Also new means for writing (e.g. Quip) and social reading and collaborative writing (e.g. Book Sprints)

DIY Encryption and Cypherpunks

Together, these technologies create contours of a new communicational landscape appearing before us, and into which computational media mediates use and interaction. Phones become smart phones and media devices that can identify, monitor and control our actions and behaviour  through anticipatory computing. Whilst seemingly freeing us, we are also increasingly enclosed within an algorithmic cage that attempts to surround us with contextual advertising and behavioural nudges.

One response could be “Critical Encryption Practices”, the dual moment of a form of computal literacy and understanding of encryption technologies and cryptography combined with critical reflexive approaches. Cypherpunk approaches tend towards an individualistic libertarianism, but there remains a critical reflexive space opened up by their practices. Commentators are often dismissive of encryption as a “mere” technical solution to what is also a political problem of widespread surveillance. 

CV Dazzle Make-up, Adam Harvey
However, Critical encryption practices could provide both the political, technical and educative moments required for the kinds of media literacies important today – e.g. in civil society. 

This includes critical treatment of and reflection on crypto-systems such as cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, and the kinds of cybernetic imaginaries that often accompany them. Critical encryption practices could also develop signaling systems – e.g. new aesthetic and Adam Harvey’s work. 

Augmediated Reality

The idea of supplementing or augmenting reality is being transformed with the notion of “augmediated” technologies (Mann 2001). These are technologies that offer a radical mediation of everyday life via screenic forms (such as “Glass”) to co-construct a computally generated synoptic meta-reality formed of video feeds, augmented technology and real-time streams and notification. Intel’s work of Perceptual Computing is a useful example of this kind of media form. 

The New Aesthetic

These factors raise issues of new aesthetic forms related to the computal. For example, augmediated aesthetics suggests new forms of experience in relation to its aesthetic mediation (Berry et al 2012). The continuing “glitch” digital aesthetic remains interesting in relation to the new aesthetic and aesthetic practice more generally (see Briz 2013). Indeed, the aesthetics of encryption, e.g. “complex monochromatic encryption patterns,” the mediation of encryption etc. offers new ways of thinking about the aesthetic in relation to digital media more generally and the post-digital (see Berry et al 2013)

Bumblehive and Veillance

Within a security setting one of the key aspects is data collection and it comes as no surprise that the US has been at the forefront of rolling out gigantic data archive systems, with the NSA (National Security Agency) building the country’s biggest spy centre at its Utah Data Center (Bamford 2012) – codenamed Bumblehive. This centre has a “capacity that will soon have to be measured in yottabytes, which is 1 trillion terabytes or a quadrillion gigabytes” (Poitras et al 2013). 

This is connected to the notion of the comprehensive collection of data because, “if you're looking for a needle in the haystack, you need a haystack,” according to Jeremy Bash, the former CIA chief of staff. The scale of the data collection is staggering and according to Davies (2013) the UK GCHQ has placed, “more than 200 probes on transatlantic cables and is processing 600m ‘telephone events’ a day as well as up to 39m gigabytes of internet traffic. Veillance - both surveillance and sousveillence are made easier with mobile devices and cloud computing. We face rising challenges for responding to these issues. 

The Internet vs The Stacks

The internet as we tend to think of it has become increasingly colonised by massive corporate technology stacks. These companies, Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, are called collectively “The Stacks” (Sterling, quoted in Emami 2012) – vertically integrated giant social media corporations. As Sterling observes,

[There's] a new phenomena that I like to call the Stacks [vertically integrated social media]. And we've got five of them -- Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Microsoft. The future of the stacks is basically to take over the internet and render it irrelevant. They're not hostile to the internet -- they're just [looking after] their own situation. And they all think they'll be the one Stack... and render the others irrelevant... They're annihilating other media... The Lords of the Stacks (Sterling, quoted in Emami 2012).
The Stacks also raise the issue of resistance and what we might call counter-stacks,  hacking the stacks, and movements like Indieweb and Personal Cloud computing are interesting responses to them and Sterling optimistically thinks, "they'll all be rendered irrelevant. That's the future of the Stacks" (Sterling, quoted in Emami 2012). 

The Indieweb

The Indieweb is a kind of DIY response to the Stacks and an attempt to wrestle back some control back from these corporate giants (Finley 2013). These Indieweb developers offer an interesting perspective on what is at stake in the current digital landscape, somewhat idealistic and technically oriented they nonetheless offer a site of critique. They are also notable for “building things”, often small scale, micro-format type things, decentralised and open source/free software in orientation. The indieweb is, then, "an effort to create a web that’s not so dependent on tech giants like Facebook, Twitter, and, yes, Google — a web that belongs not to one individual or one company, but to everyone" (Finley 2013).

Push Notification

This surface, or interactional layer, of the digital is hugely important for providing the foundations through which we interact with digital media (Berry 2011). Under development are new high-speed adaptive algorithmic interfaces (algorithmic GUIs) that can offer contextual information, and even reshape the entire interface itself, through the monitoring of our reactions to computational interfaces and feedback and sensor information from the computational device itself – e.g. Google Now. 

The Notification Layer

One of the key sites for reconciliation of the complexity of real-time streaming computing is the notification layer, which will increasingly by an application programming interface (API) and function much like a platform. This is very much the battle taking place between the “Stacks”, e.g. Google Now, Siri, Facebook Home, Microsoft “tiles”, etc. With the political economy of advertising being transformed with the move from web to mobile, notification layers threaten revenue streams. 
It is also a battle over subjectivity and the kind of subject constructed in these notification systems.

Real-time Data vs Big Data

We have been hearing a lot about “big data” and related data visualisation, methods, and so forth. Big data (exemplified by the NSA Prism programme) is largely a historical batch computing system. A much more difficult challenge is real-time stream processing, e.g. future NSA programmes called SHELLTRUMPET, MOONLIGHTPATH, SPINNERET and GCHQ Tempora programme. 
That is, monitoring in real-time, and being able to computationally spot patterns, undertake stream processing, etc.

Contextual Computing

With multiple sensors built into new mobile devices (e.g. camera, microphones, GPS, compass, gyroscopes, radios, etc.) new forms of real-time processing and aggregation become possible.  In some senses then this algorithmic process is the real-time construction of a person's possible “futures” or their “futurity”, the idea, even, that eventually the curation systems will know “you” better than you know yourself – interesting for notions of ethics/ethos. This the computational real-time imaginary envisaged by corporations, like Google, that want to tell you what you should be doing next...

Anticipatory Computing

Our phones are now smart phones, and as such become media devices that can also be used to identify, monitor and control our actions and behavior  through anticipatory computing. Elements of subjectivity, judgment and cognitive capacities are increasingly delegated to algorithms and prescribed to us through our devices, and there is clearly the danger of a lack of critical reflexivity or even critical thought in this new subject. This new paradigm of anticipatory computing stresses the importance of connecting up multiple technologies to enable a new kind of intelligence within these technical devices. 

Towards a Critical Response to the Post-Digital

Computation in a post-digital age is fundamentally changing the way in which knowledge is created, used, shared and understood, and in doing so changing the relationship between knowledge and freedom. Indeed, following Foucault (1982) the “task of philosophy as a critical analysis of our world is something which is more and more important. Maybe the most certain of all philosophical problems is the problem of the present time, and of what we are, in this very moment… maybe to refuse what we are” (Dreyfus and Rabinow 1982: 216). 

One way of doing this is to think about Critical Encryption Practices, for example, and the way in which technical decisions (e.g. plaintext defaults on email) are made for us. The critique of knowledge also calls for us to question the coding of instrumentalised reason into the computal. This calls for a critique of computational knowledge and as such a critique of the society producing that knowledge. 


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