What is hiding behind a simple click?

Simple. We click wit our mouse cursor on a link to a web page. Or with our finger on a mobile phone or tablet  touchscreen. Whatever. We interact with the web. Anything we can assimilate to a “click”.

What happens next? Many things. Perhaps too many. Consider this image:

adlandscapejpg.001

This is the ecosystem of companies that can be activated after clicking. Between us and an announcing company, there are many other companies:  advertising agencies, user-tracking websites, supertargeted placement of ads, etc.

Our data flies and bounces from one website to another. Trackers, ad allocators and other sites receive information from our web cookies, our browsing history, the list of our friends, etc. etc. etc.

When we accept “terms and conditions” we leave our door open for others to negotiate with our intimacy. According to this research the average number of this type of sites that an Android app contacts is 500. The record was achieved by a innocent-looking volume equalization application: 2000 websites.

There is much talk of data transparency with respect to our right to access and understand the information that governments use in their decisions.

We should also think about what we can do and how to regulate who uses our data. That is, it should be transparent to us who is accessing them. Developing new user tools can be a way to help this.

Here is an example of Anne Helmond and Alexei Miagkov who again will organize this year the Summer School on Digital Methods which specializes in how to unveil and visualized lay who is tracking us.

TrackingTheTrackers

And its always worthwhile to watch the enlightening documentary “Terms and Conditions May Apply.”

Continue Reading

Zinc Shower 2015: Collective Intelligence and Strange Objects

This last weekend I was invited to give a lecture at Zinc Shower. 2015. I had been asked to talk about art and business.  I presented some ideas and projects of Organizational Aesthetics. The connection to the collective and collaborative dimensions, which are the main topics of Zinc Shower, comes from how all the actors in a process of change within a company can respond to “strange objects”. These are special objects that have the ability to make actors react and get together to imagine change and set it in motion. I’ve been working on the concept of “strange object” as a unifying catalyst of such transformations and of transdisciplinary projects in general. But I will write about all  this in more detail in a future post here In Zinc Shower I met with old friends as Amalio Rey whose conference on Collective Intelligence gave me a good way to assess the level of intelligence that a group develops in a crowdsourced project. Amalio proposes that the process of collective intelligence must have a return to the participants. His formula is simple but effective. FullSizeRender The return to a multitude (crowd) participating in a project of collective intelligence is, in part, to participate in the process (learning) and participating in the outcome of the process itself.  I think that this simple formula is as a good criterion to evaluate how fair to its participants is a collective intelligence project  Too many projects  seem to just strive to get a result. This result, too often, is shared only by … the organizer of crowdsourcing. Amalio has an interesting blog about collective intelligence that explores how to put some order in this field. Amalio is arranging his ideas to eventually turn them into a book. I think he has come up with good insights about the different dimensions of a Collective Intelligence projct. Amalio is sharing his ideas for managing, comaring, and evaluating collective intelligence projects. I think that they are very useful and practical. The conversation I had  with him after his presentation help me critically relocate some aspects of this field. Amalio has the ability to make me doubt about everything. Do not miss his fine insights into collective intelligence, connective, collected and collaborative and other concepts that he offers to separate the wheat from the chaff of collective intelligence. I also had very interesting conversations with Cecilia Tham, MOB, and Axel Streamers Domestic Data that may end up in future projects.

Continue Reading

Critical Technology: from suspicion to a manifesto, and from a manifesto to action

Is it possible to critize technology from the very practice of technology?

The  adjective “critical” is used in many art, design, or uban projects. It’s becoming another “new normal”. In fact, we are already in post-critical and post-digital times (see for example). The standardization and integration of “the digital” into everyday practices permeates the lives of almost everyone. A sign of this post-digitality is the integration of the digital modes of culture and innovation in the official parlance. My home city, for example, seems to have taken up a good deal of “Californian Ideology” into its official discourse: urban digitization projects, adoption of the maker moviment outlook as the city new productive development strategy, constant references to prototyping (Prototyping Barcelona) as the city favorite way of innovation, etc.

CriticalUncritial

All along the path towards the postdigital we have left initiatives that promoted the critical appropriation of technology. For example, Andrew Feenberg’s. I owe to Simon Penny and an old cyberpunk friend a hint towards how things could had happened otherwise.

transf_techn_cover

Let’s start with Simon Penny. I took part in the “Sinergy” workshop that he led with Roc Parés and Mara Balestrini at Hangar in July 2013. The focus of the workshop was “transdisciplinarity”. Simon Penny drew our attention to Phil Agre. Phil Agre!. It was a surprise for me. I had only associated the work of Agre with arcane Artificial Intelligence projects. As an undergraduate of Computer Science I had to study his research (his mythical Pengi system for example). Never heard about his reflections on critical approaches to technology. Thanks to “Sinergies” I discovered that Phil Agre promoted “Critical Technical Practice” as a way to critically develop technology. In a way, he showed how to be critical about a discipline from within the discipline itself. And this I discovered in a seminar about transdisciplinary methods at the crossroads of art, sciene and technology. Definitely some months of July are really fruitful!.

Phil Agre invited technologists to develop methods that allowed, from the practice of a technology, a thorough and deep critique of that technology.

The intellectual utility of technical exercises, aside from the practical utility that they might actually have in the world, lies precisely in their limitations and failures. Perhaps we can learn to approach technical work in the spirit of reductio ad absurdum: faced with a technical difficulty, perhaps we can learn to diagnose it as deeply as possible. Some difficulties, of course, will be superficial and transient. But others can serve as symptoms of deep and systematic confusions in the field. We are only aware of this possibility if we develop the critical tools to understand the depths below the ordinary practices of a technical field

He discussed how this could be done not only from reflection, or argumentation from theory. In a move that is idiosyncratic to technical cultures, he showed that it should be done through the actual practice of  that technology.

The constructive path is much harder to follow, but more rewarding. Its essence is to evaluate a research project not by its correspondence to one’s own substantive beliefs but by the rigor and insight with which it struggles against the patterns of difficulty that are inherent in its design.

But how cand you do that?. That’s where the lead from my old cyberpunk friend enters the scene. He pointed me the work of Julian Oliver, who is one of the promoters of the “Critical Engineering Manifesto“. I copy here some of the Manifesto’s proposals, that somehow connect to Phil Agre’s points of view:

1. The Critical Engineer considers any technology depended upon to be both a challenge and a threat. The greater the dependence on a technology the greater the need to study and expose its inner workings, regardless of ownership or legal provision.

2. The Critical Engineer raises awareness that with each technological advance our techno-political literacy is challenged.

[..]

6. The Critical Engineer expands “machine” to describe interrelationships encompassing devices, bodies, agents, forces and networks.

7. The Critical Engineer observes the space between the production and consumption of technology. Acting rapidly to changes in this space, the Critical Engineer serves to expose moments of imbalance and deception.

The first work from Julian Oliver that I got to know was “The Transparency Grenade“, a criticism of the opacity (or, conversely, aggresive transparency) that digital technology allows.

tg-ed2_1-680-title

When AI is being portrayed as one of worst menaces to Humankind by no other than Stephen Hawking himself and Big Data as a monster of total control, shouldn’t we shake and wake up critically the happy builders of the new postdigital worlds based on those technologies?. Some conceptual grenades are appearing here and there, as the proposals by Agre and Oliver and many others show. However, they are too far from engineering schools. And let’s not talk about how far they are from official innovation offices.

Here you have a possible map of the fragile connections present in this post.

Critical Technology Posst Conexiones Fragiles 130413

Continue Reading

Considering the alternative

The high-speed train saves us. It deforms spacetime with its mere possibility. The winding road to to Roses loses its importance. Just an hour and a half. The self-proclaimed great city is just an hour and a half from here. You don’t need less. You reach the old capital, Paris, in six hours. The airport that connects you with the wide world is just one hour away. You don’t need anything else. One can drive slow to get connected with speed. It is also easy to enter slowness fast. You wake up and look at the close close, waves crashing against the bright white of the village houses. Your fingers feel on the screen the world’s information. It is the same ritual that you follow in a gray neighbourhood back in Barcelona. In your memories you can hear the automatic whisper of the urban factory that awakes itself with this subwoofer sound. You step out to the balcony, a ship bow just above the sea. With a coffee cup in hand, you see the same seagulls that the flew there the day before. They float in a fractal structure, rehearsing new anarchic and daring formations. They cheer you up. You feel good.   Cadaques You look at the blue door of the fishmonger’s on the other side of the harbor, in the bright light of this morning. You imagine the fish and wonder which recommendations the shop owner will give you today. You picture the bread you are going to buy immediately after at the baker’s. You start thinking about how to organize the morning. There is room for a adventure in a small geography. You imagine long walks over strange rocks near calm sea coves. You go. As you walk, you remember that

“Slowness is the forgotten dimension of time”.

You return home with new connections and emotions. Fresh. You put the focus on documents, plans and pictures. Calls are answered. Emails returned. Budgets, notes, courses, articles, reviewed and rewritten. You get into a videoconference with far away people. You do as back there but right here. It is the afternoon. Someone calls your name from the street. You will take a “cortado” in the casino, a two minutes walk away. Here we are saved by the rhythm of time and the light of space. Slow and Fast.

Continue Reading

Memoria, creatividad, sentimiento y Vinton Cerf

Andaba yo, todavía impactado con la exposición de Pedro Torres, entretejiendo ideas en torno a la memoria y la creatividad, cuando dí con el sentimiento. Luego me tropecé con el olvido. Por último, Vinton Cerf, el pionero de Internet, me llevó al final de la civilización con su concepto de memoria.

Graffiti en Barcelona

Graffiti en Barcelona

Vayamos por partes.

Cuando hablaba el otro día de la memoria y de su papel en la creatividad todavía estaba dándole vueltas a la rueda de Giordano Bruno,  a su sistematización consciente de la, por así decir, clasificación de los recuerdos. Bruno añadía a cada recuerdo el quién, el qué, el cómo, el dónde, el cuándo y, nada más ni nada menos, que el sentimiento al que lo asociaba. ¿Por qué el sentimiento?.

Recordé vagamente algo que había leído hacía mucho tiempo. Desempolvé algunos artículos, entrevistas y libros de Antonio Damasio, el famoso neurocientífico. Encontré frases como “es el sentimiento el que da pie a la consciencia”. Un poco más allá venía a decir que sólo el sentimiento tiene un poder suficiente como para recuperar recuerdos lejanísimos con gran lujo de detalles.

Conozco una mujer fascinante que a través de su memoria emotiva es capaz de recordar y revivir el sentimiento preciso que experimentó años atrás. Y con ello toda la situación que lo envolvía: el qué, el cuándo, el dónde y el quién. La revive para lo bueno y para lo malo.

Es, pues, esa áncora sentimental la clave para la estructuración de nuestra memoria y la potenciación del recuerdo. Lo que ahora los neurocientíficos sancionan y comprueban, Giordano Bruno ya lo había intuído hace unos cuantos siglos.

Claro está que la memoria es tramposa. Oliver Sacks dice “memories are not fixed or frozen, like Proust’s jars of preserves in a larder, but are transformed, disassembled, reassembled, and recategorized with every act of recollection.” Y ahí está la gracia. Una memoria imperfecta pero sistemática, con pequeños desenfoques y deslizamientos en cada recuerdo permite conectar imperfectamente ideas poco parecidas: ser “creativo”. La memoria sería más bien una colección de los  “Conceptos Fluídos” de Douglas Hofstaedter. Según él, la base para la analogía, uno de los mecanismos de la creatividad.

Una memoria exacta, precisa e infinita, como la del memorioso Funes de Borges sería, en cambio, el antídoto contra la creatividad. Borges sugiere que con una memoria perfecta e imborrable sería imposible cualquier tipo de pensamiento abstracto. No se podría generalizar. Estaríamos ahogados en las distinciones más nimias. Ferran Adrià sabe que la conceptualización y la generalización son la base de su método creativo. Su memoria grupal creativa es sistemática. Admite la imperfección suficiente como para abstraer, generalizar y, a partir de ahí, poder saltar y conectar con otras ideas poco o muy diferentes. Así es como se obtiene algo nuevo: recombinando lo dispar.

Vinton Cerf se ha descolgado recientemente en una reunión auspiciada por la UNESCO y en otros foros con un grito de alarma sobre la “pérdida de la memoria” digital. La fragilidad de la conservación de los medios digitales puede poner en peligro la memoria de nuestra civilización. Y ya en un crescendo catastrófico hollywoodiense, afirma que puede “llevarnos a una nueva Edad Media”.

Esta admonición no es novedosa. Recuerdo que hace veinte años discutía con mis colegas universitarios de Biblioteconomía sobre las graves dificultades de conservación que les planteaban los CDs. Un incunable aguanta siglos. La información de un CD apenas dura diez años, me decían. Que les pregunten a los comisarios de “New Media Art” cómo se las ven y se las desean no ya para conservar sino para itinerar exposiciones realizadas en los años 60, 70 u 80. Están hechas con materiales tan abstrusos como cintas de cassette, televisores analógicos o discos de 8 pulgadas (sí he dicho de 8 pulgadas).

Cada época olvida por sus propios medios. Si el papel se deshace, lo magnético se descodifica. Y es que, como en la canción de Loquillo “Nada permanece, todo se desvanece”. Y menos mal. La memoria colectiva, desdibujada por la repetición, por la transmisión defectuosa de narraciones que van añadiendo o perdiendo capas; por la pérdida y por el olvido va mutando. Así, de siglos en siglos, el mundo se nos aparece como nuevo. O cada generación se siente pionera. Es joven quien o bien no accede a la memoria porque no la tiene o bien sabe olvidar. Experimentamos el ignorante privilegio de pensar que lo descubrimos todo. Hasta Colón creyó haber descubierto América o Cipango, según.

El concepto de memoria de Vinton Cerf es absoluto, “funesiano”. Trabaja con la idea de memoria-repositorio, exacta, sin difuminados, sin olvido; sin claroscuros, ni deslizamientos semánticos. Un viejo sueño que Umberto Eco rozó con sus críticas a la búsqueda de los lenguajes universales. Quizá una memoria perfecta sí que sea el fin de la civilización. Si Borges tiene razón, nos dejaría sin capacidad de abstracción. Tampoco es tan extraño que Vinton Cerf juegue con esta idea de memoria. Trabaja en una compañía que no quiere olvidar nada: Google.

Continue Reading