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.
That’s how I felt when I read about the the Chicago PD’s “black sites” last week. In fact, that seems to my perpetual state these days. From drone strikes and assassinations to the Snowden documents to the Zimmerman acquittal to the ongoing, relentless harassment of women in the public sphere.
The truly disturbing thing about all of these things, I think, is that the perpetrators fully expected to get away with the things they did. I mean, the NSA has had whistle blower problems for 30 years. The Chicago PD knew the people they detained in their black sites wouldn’t stay there forever. Those police and prosecutors had to have known it was possible that the incident they lied about could have been filmed. But they all did — do — these things anyway. Because they know that they won’t face any serious repercussions for it. That’s the shock that just keeps reverberating.
Eleanor Saitta works professionally as a computer security expert, but more generally she “looks at how systems break” – computer, social, infrastructural, legal, and more. She comes on the show today to share a unique perspective on surveillance / security culture that we have found ourselves enmeshed in. Don’t miss this one (or part 2!).
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.
Artist Ingrid Burrington talks about the problems with “drones for good”:
The best possible scenarios for drone technologies being used in the future center on the question of who owns them? It’s mainly proprietary technology, mostly in the hands of the military, if we are talking about the large, heavy-duty, and weaponized drones, while the smaller hobbyist and consumer-grade drones still are beyond the price point of the average consumer. The concept of using drones for good, while very well intentioned, still feels very much like it’s coming from this neoliberal, nonprofit, industrial-complex mentality, which weirds me out. So the potential for drones having positive social impacts has to do with drones becoming an available tool to those who could use them for establishing equitable power relations. The problem is that drones are tools that by default operate with asymmetrical power relations: the operator can see lots of things that you can’t see. So improving the scenario becomes about allowing people to see what drones see.
There are cheap drones like the Parrot AR, but I’m guessing she’s referring to ones that can fly further and longer. This brings to mind nanosattelites that let you rent time on them to do your own space research. Perhaps we need something similar but for drones?
This reminds me that I’ve been meaning to post this video of the drones panel at the Theorizing the Web conference:
This is an old link, freshly excavated from the depths of my Pocket account. Rob Walker writes about the strange way that Vanessa Stiviano , the alleged mistress of the former owner of the LA Clippers, subverts paparazzi culture:
What I’m interested in is how Stiviano is using it: Not to protect herself from the sun’s glare, but rather from the media glare. In other words, she is misusing, but I’d say rather effectively. This is a pretty good object-use hack.
And the aesthetics are, in my view, amazing: Unlike the traditional coat draped over a bowed head, or whatever, this visor allows her to do more than thwart perp-walk aesthetics. Instead she rather brazenly defies paparazzi culture. And indeed she seems to know what she’s doing, as she pairs her weird Darth Vader headgear with overtly camera-ready outfits — from semi-blingy-business attire to ostentatiously “casual” combinations of silly T shirts and cutoffs.
We already know that if you use an online social network, you give up a serious slice of your privacy thanks to the omnivorous way companies like Google and Facebook gather your personal data. But new academic research offers a glimpse of what these companies may be learning about people who don’t use their massive web services. And it’s a bit scary.
Because they couldn’t get their hands on data from the likes of Facebook or LinkedIn, the researchers studied publicly available data archived from an older social network, Friendster. They found that if Friendster had used certain state-of-the-art prediction algorithms, it could have divined sensitive information about non-members, including their sexual orientation. “At the time, it was possible for Friendster to predict the sexual orientation of people who did not have an account on Friendster,” says David Garcia, a postdoctoral researcher with Switzerland’s ETH Zurich university, who co-authored the study.
This can be done through what are called “shadow profiles.” For example, if five of your friends invite you to join a new site called NeoSocial Company by punching your email address into a form on the site, the company could create a social graph based simply on your email address and who invited you, even if you don’t sign up for the service. They could even start to make some inferences about you based on what they know about your friends. Many sites also encourage you to upload your address book when you sign-up, so that i can help you connect with people you know who may already be using the service, or even to alert you if they sign-up later. If you do this, you could be helping these companies build shadow profiles of your contacts.
As Bob notes, an audit by Ireland’s Data Protection Commissioner confirmed that Facebook doesn’t keep shadow profiles. But the technical capability is always there, and we have no real idea what sites that haven’t been audited are doing. What’s more, law enforcement can build social network graphs based on seized address books and cell phones, or even metadata demanded from telephone companies.
So even if you don’t have a cell phone, if a friend called your landline, then traveled to your house, then to another location, and then back to your house, someone with access to that information could make an educated guess that you went with that friend to that particular location.
My favorite things of the week were probably David Graeber’s essay on Thomas Picketty and why capitalism isn’t going to tame itself, and Thomas Frank’s interview with Graeber about bullshit jobs, the divide between anarchists and socialists on work ethic and why the working class resents middle class liberals.
But surveillance was, as it often is, the big theme of the week. For the one year anniversary of the publication of the first of Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks, superstar investor and Netscape co-founder Marc Andresseen, told the world that he thinks Snowden is a traitor. Rusty Foster then told the world that he thinks Andreeseen is a douchebag. But also recognizes that there’s a douchebag living inside his own head:
When I see Marc Andreessen, what I’m really seeing is this liar in my soul. It knows I always had a leg up, it knows I went to private school, I never had to conform to anyone else’s schedule, I never had to work as hard as anyone else, I always skated by on a good vocabulary and a plausible excuse. It knows all this but it doesn’t care, because it still believes that I’m special anyway, innately, not just that I got to live life on the easy setting and that I happened to be dropping out of college right when the internet came along to support my lazy ass.
Perhaps also in recognition of the NSA leaks anniversary, Vodaphone revealed that it has secret wires into its networks that allow intelligence agencies in various companies tap right in and listen to and record conversations, or collect metadata.
And remember the Stratfor hack? It turns out it was orchestrated by Hector “Sabu” Monsegur while he was an FBI informant. So were a bunch of major hacks in Brazil. The FBI could have stopped all of this stuff from happening, but thought it would be better to give the hackers it was watching enough rope to hang themselves, damn the consequences.
Returning to Snowden for a moment: the dude has said that encryption still works. And PGP is probably the best way to encrypt your e-mail. So this week Google released the code for a Chrome plugin that should make it easier to use PGP in the browser, but Ella Saitta explained why that might not be a good thing. One of the reasons was paraphrased by L. Rhodes on Twitter: Google might end up doing to crypto what they did to RSS.
One such man, an unnamed 33-year-old, told the Halesowen News that after finding a property with a cannabis farm he and his crew either burgle or “tax” the victim.
“They are fair game,” he said. “It is not like I’m using my drone to see if people have nice televisions. I am just after drugs to steal and sell, if you break the law then you enter me and my drone’s world.
“Half the time we don’t even need to use violence to get the crop. Growing cannabis has gone mainstream and the people growing it are not gangsters, especially in places like Halesowen, Cradley Heath and Oldbury.”
A fleet of surveillance drones once deployed in the skies over Iraq is being repurposed to provide aerial Wi-Fi in far-flung corners of the world, according to Darpa.
RQ-7 Shadow drones that the Army flew in Iraq for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions are now becoming wireless hubs for connectivity in remote conflict zones where challenging communication environments can mean the difference between being ambushed and getting reinforcements.
“What does it mean that I’m able to be throwing these strokes up and across a canvas that is 30 feet wide and is suspended 25 feet in the air?,” he asks. “Painting in these ways just wasn’t previously possible.” Much in the way that smartphones have become an extension of our minds, Katsu wonders if drones could someday serve as a commonplace way to extend our physical selves. Of course, in that sort of drone-filled future, you’d have to imagine that cops would have their own drones, too–anti-graffiti UAVs that chase rogue robot artists through alleyways and across rooftops, or else just clean-up quadcopters that scan walls for illegal art and clean them autonomously with high-powered water weaponry.