One of the things I’m did this past spring was an independent study—a vehicle by which to move through my dissertation’s tentative bibliography, at a pace of around two books at time, every two weeks, and to write short comparative analyses of the texts. These books covered intersections of philosophy, psychology, theology, machine consciousness, and Afro-Atlantic magico-religious traditions, I thought my reviews might be of interest, here.
My first two books in this process were Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks and David J. Gunkel’s The Machine Question, and while I didn’t initially have plans for the texts to thematically link, the first foray made it pretty clear that patterns would emerge whether I consciously intended or not.
[Image of a careworn copy of Frantz Fanon’s BLACK SKIN, WHITE MASKS, showing a full-on image of a Black man’s face wearing a white anonymizing eye-mask.]
In choosing both Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks and Gunkel’s The Machine Question, I was initially worried that they would have very little to say to each other; however, on reading the texts, I instead found myself struck by how firmly the notions of otherness and alterity were entrenched throughout both. Each author, for very different reasons and from within very different contexts, explores the preconditions, the ethical implications, and a course of necessary actions to rectify the coming to be of otherness.
Last year, I was given and read Nick Harkaway’s GNOMON, and I’ve wanted to take a little time to describe to you why you should read it, if you haven’t already.
GNOMON starts with an investigator in London looking into the death of someone in the course of what should have been a routine investigation. A woman was strapped into a chair and her mind was probed with drugs and machines to learn the truth of who she was and whether she posed a threat to the city. Mielikki Neith works for The Witness—an automated algorithmic learning and surveillance system tied into a systema dn series of networked devices across London’s populace, creating and enabling the ultimate democracy. Citizens are engaged and connected to the laws, status, and operations of their country, in real time, and it is through this system that Neith is assigned to the task of investigating Diana Hunter’s death.
From there, things get very strange, very fast. As the real-time recording of Hunter’s mind under interrogation unfolds in Neith’s consciousness—a tool used by Witness service to maximize transparency and understanding—Neith finds more than just Hunter’s mind: she also the life story of another. As the story unfolds, it actually doesn’t. It refolds, mountain folds, and valley folds through time and space and placeness, and that gets, ultimately, to what I want to say to you about what Nick Harkaway has done here.
Here are some things that are true about GNOMON:
This book is and is about magic, machine consciousness, and communities of resistance, in the weirdest ways possible.
It is exactly 666 pages long.
This book has four or five or six main threads, and it weaves all of them around and through all of them, each enveloping and enfolding each, wrapping around the outside only to then traverse it and find that you are inside of and beneath the next layer in the line.
The entire book resonates with Borges, Hofstadter, Danielewski, Butler, and LeGuin, without imitation.
Each one of these personages appears or seems to appear, but just when you think you’re sure how they’ll be seen, they are not there, like a shark fin in the ocean that becomes and always was the wave of the sea you’re swimming in and then, again, or maybe never, churns and is the shark: No less deeply and immediately important for the reminder of what is in there with you, and quietly unsettling for upending what you think you know…
GNOMON is the kind of thing that you know is behaving as intended when one of the metaphors/similes/analogies you’ve decided to use to describe it shows up in it the day after you think of it.
It is almost impossible to spoil this book without telling you literally all of the events of this book, but I also don’t want to colour your intake, too much, other than to say that this book is important. There is mystery in it, and there’s art. It is a masterful thing, and if all you see is the surface plot of it, then you’ve missed the central conceit of the thing.
If you have not already done so, definitely get it, when you get a chance.
Since 2011, billions of dollars of venture capital investment have poured into public education through private, for-profit technologies that promise to revolutionize education. Designed for the “21st century” classroom, these tools promise to remedy the many, many societal ills facing public education with artificial intelligence, machine learning, data mining, and other technological advancements.
They are also being used to track and record every move students make in the classroom, grooming students for a lifetime of surveillance and turning education into one of the most data-intensive industries on the face of the earth. The NSA has nothing on the monitoring tools that education technologists have developed in to “personalize” and “adapt” learning for students in public school districts across the United States.
The AP ran a story recently on the use of drones on U.S. soil by civilians. I’m interested in the examples Republicans Rand Paul and Austin Scott give for curbing the use of drones in the U.S.:
“I just don’t like the concept of drones flying over barbecues in New York to see whether you have a Big Gulp in your backyard or whether you are separating out your recyclables according to the city mandates,” Paul said in an interview, referring to a New York City ban on supersized soft drinks.
He acknowledged that was an “extreme example,” but he added: “They might just say we’d be safer from muggings if we had constant surveillance crisscrossing the street all the time. But then the question becomes, ‘What about jaywalking? What about eating too many donuts? What about putting mayonnaise on your hamburger?’ Where does it stop?” […]
Discussion of the issue has been colored by exaggerated drone tales spread largely by conservative media and bloggers.
Scott said he was prompted to introduce his bill in part by news reports that the Environmental Protection Agency has been using drones to spy on cattle ranchers in Nebraska. The agency has indeed been searching for illegal dumping of waste into streams, but it is doing it with piloted planes.
On the one hand, maybe I should welcome whatever it takes to get conservatives concerned about civil liberties. But I worry about this sort of nanny state fear mongering, especially since it seems to obscure some of the more serious issues regarding policing and invasion of privacy by private corporations – not to mention the questionable use of weaponized drones by the military in the first place.
Marshall Kirkpatrick outlines the rapidly accumulating data from persistent surveillance, geospatial tracking, and massive sensor webs and poses the question: what would you do with it? Skipping to the end of his piece:
Let’s assume that real-time persistent airborne surveillance data becomes another cloud service you can pull down to leverage for your application development, just like storage, computing and some other data APIs are today. Let’s assume that in time this data becomes a commodity, even!
What on earth will people do with that? The possibilities seem nearly endless.
It’s hard to wrap your mind around – a sure sign that it’s a powerful vision of the future. I asked ReadWriteWeb research intern and resident GIS guy Justin Houk what he would do with such a service and his first answer was, “Become invisible and king of the world.” Then he got serious and settled on a dream app tracking food carts in the city. (“I’m a man of simple taste,” he says.)
“It’s hard not to jump right to evil uses even for me,” Houk said. “I don’t know how more sinister types can resist.”
Apparently this kind of technology is fast leaving the realm of science fiction, even if it’s being exclusively used by the military, and will soon become more generally accessible and well developed than ever before.
What do you want to see done with it, or do with it yourself?
Gathering info from a variety of different face-tracking programs (all based on the rudimentary, yet effective Viola-Jones Method, Harvey alters and experiments with images to make them undetectable. His most recent run used women’s faces from “Figure Drawing for Fashion Design” and smeared each visage with, erm, Lady Gaga-esque weirdness. As one may suspect, the stranger, more asymmetrical designs evading the detecting software more readily. Identifying ‘Haar-like features’ for identification — or the pixels that cameras detect as belonging to face — Harvey attempted to confuse and contort the software, by confusing and contorting the face.
According to the filings in Blake J Robbins v Lower Merion School District (PA) et al, the laptops issued to high-school students in the well-heeled Philly suburb have webcams that can be covertly activated by the schools’ administrators, who have used this facility to spy on students and even their families. The issue came to light when the Robbins’s child was disciplined for “improper behavior in his home” and the Vice Principal used a photo taken by the webcam as evidence. The suit is a class action, brought on behalf of all students issued with these machines.
Last July TAT (“The Astonishing Tribe“) posted a concept video of their augmented social face-card system (okay, I made that term up, what else should we call it?). The video tickled the imagination with over 400,000 views.
TAT has since teamed up with Polar Rose, a leading computer vision services company, to turn that concept into a reality. The TAT Cascades system combined with Polar Rose’s FaceLib gives us this prototype called Recognizr.
Programmer Joey Hess found that Palm Pre’s operating system webOS sends his GPS location back to Palm every day. Hess also found code that sends Palm data on which webOS apps he has used each day, and for how long he used each one.
“I was surprised by this,” Hess, who bought the Pre about a month ago, told Wired.com. “I had location services turned off though I had GPS still on because I wanted it to geotag photos. Still I didn’t expect Palm to collect this level of information.” […]
Palm’s actions trigger questions about consumer privacy and the extent to which handset makers and developers are gathering and using data about buyers’ behavior. In this case, some of the concerns may be overblown, says Charles Golvin, an analyst with Forrester Research.
Golvin cites Sun CEO Scott McNealy, who said in 1999: “You have zero privacy. Get over it.” Says Golvin, “While that is certainly overstated, it is also true. Consumers, in general are concerned about privacy but look at the number of people who are willing to give up every detail of their personal lives for the opportunity to win a big screen TV.”