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digital ash in a digital urn

October 24, 2010

A still from Tron (1982), one of the first blockbuster films to use extensive computer graphics

I was having a conversation about theatre the other day, in which I was lamenting its often gratuitous use of technology (the Malthouse’s overuse of their rotating stage, in particular). If it doesn’t actually add to the performance, then fancy-pants technology is distracting and says little more than, ‘Check out how much cash we’ve got!’ or, ‘Lookie here, look what we can do!’ I’m sure many people think the same of new digital technologies used in the artistic sphere, like HDR photography, digital art and installation, as fin de siècle folks thought of photography. ‘That isn’t art,’ they thought, ‘Where’s the expression, the talent, the beauty of the form?’

Well, obviously, they were wrong. Photography is now as legitimate an artform as painting, and the way things are going, digital art will soon follow in its footsteps. Incorporating anything from film, to digital photography, to computer graphics, to virtual reality installations using projection, digital art has infinite possibilities and in my opinion, it will soon break into the mainstream. And why not? Electronic music has been popular since the early 1980s, and you now find elements of it in most musical forms (electric guitars, synthesisers, drum machines, and especially auto-tune).

A recent project which has brought new art forms into the mainstream is the Darwinian electro-opera by Swedish electro-pop duo, The Knife. Combining traditional opera singing with electronic beats and synths and featuring experimental lighting and digitised projection techniques, Tomorrow, in a Year is an innovative way to bring together old-world sensibilities with more challenging innovations in art (although, admittedly, my friend who saw it did admit it was, ‘A bit wanky’.)

The main criticism I have for this kinds of artwork—apart from the strong potential for wankiness—is that it’s all too focused on the fact that it’s digital, in that the aesthetic is always referencing digitial culture. Green neon lights, blurriness and pixelated imagery dominates, making it seem that there is much more to be explored and experimented with in this medium. Other than creating shiny 3D logos, that is.

 

Irrationnal Geometrics (2008) by Pascal Dombis displays the self-referentiality of digital art

 

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google gets sci-fi

October 12, 2010

We’ve seen them on our streets festooned with high-tech cameras before: but nothing like this. Google‘s newest invention, the self-driving car, has been spotted cruising around California in their latest bid to secure world domination. Google’s automated cars use video cameras, radar sensors and lasers to weave through traffic and maps to navigate terrain. In their recent tests, Google have driven their robot cars for over 225,000km, including laps of Lake Tahoe and a trip over the Golden Gate bridge.

CNET describes the technology in further detail: ‘Google’s robot car is equipped with artificial-intelligence software; a rotating sensor on its roof, which can scan more than 200 feet in all directions to create a 3D map of the car’s environs; a video camera mounted behind the windshield, which helps the navigation system spot pedestrians, bicyclists, and traffic lights; three radar devices on the front bumper, and one in the back; and a sensor on one of the wheels that allows the system to determine the car’s position on the 3D map’. The car, equipped with a GPS and motion sensor, can also be instructed to drive cautiously or more aggressively.
Phillip K. Dick imagined it, Google invented it. But rather than a dystopian nightmare, Google dreams of allowing people to text, talk, eat, or apply make-up at their discretion while their car takes them exactly where they want to go. Interestingly, Google have chosen the Toyota Prius, a hybrid car, to test their technology, perhaps in a bid to preempt criticism from environmentalists, who might suggest that the new technology would make driving cars more desirable. (South Park dedicated an entire episode to the fashionable car, where owners would expel a gas called ‘smug’ through farts, and San Fransisco was in danger of ‘disappearing up its own asshole’.)

 

South Park parodies Prius drivers' sense of self-satisfaction

 

Google is pretty smug about the new invention, posting on its blog that:

We believe our technology has the potential to cut [the number of lives lost in road traffic accidents], perhaps by as much as half. We’re also confident that self-driving cars will transform car sharing, significantly reducing car usage, as well as help create the new “highway trains of tomorrow.” These highway trains should cut energy consumption while also increasing the number of people that can be transported on our major roads. In terms of time efficiency, the U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that people spend on average 52 minutes each working day commuting. Imagine being able to spend that time more productively.

We’ve always been optimistic about technology’s ability to advance society, which is why we have pushed so hard to improve the capabilities of self-driving cars beyond where they are today. While this project is very much in the experimental stage, it provides a glimpse of what transportation might look like in the future thanks to advanced computer science. And that future is very exciting.

If, as they say, their invention will help cut carbon emissions, that can only be a good thing. But if Phillip K. Dick has taught us anything, we might want to think about putting our lives in the hands (or, rather, the lasers) of technology. Nevertheless, this product is probably still a long way off.

where the ladies at?

October 3, 2010

Have you ever walked into a bar, or a party, or even a restaurant and thought, ‘Wow, it’s a real wienerfest in here’, or ‘What’s with all the dudes? I mean, where are all the ladies at?’  (Admittedly,  I’m a lady, so this has never bothered me, but my male friends ask these questions a lot). Well, a couple of dudes from San Fransisco, Path‘s Danny Trinh and Digg‘s Jeff Hodson, have decided to help the fellas out by literally pointing men in the direction of women. Where the ladies at? is a new service that uses Foursquare checkins to scope out untapped deposits of women around San Fransisco and announcing things like, ‘Found them! They are at DNA Lounge!’

The site, which is soon to be turned into a Facebook app, works by guessing the sex of the user through his or her first name, which does create a margin of error: I’m sure users would be upset if a high concentration of male Staceys and Courtneys happened to be in a bar at the same time. Where the ladies at ranks venues by the concentration of women there, and features the ones most chock-full of chicks. Alexia Tsotsis of TechCrunch writes:

as someone who deals with dorky guys desperate for practice consistently, I think this is brilliant and totally gets an “A” for effort and vision. Says Trinh, “The few chicks that check-in are a decent sample of where more might be.” Using any female checkins as signifiers of an even larger “lady” ratio, it’s like Trinh and Hodson have totally made an app giving nerds some kind of advantage in natural selection.

Users of Metafilter made some interesting comments about the site, criticising its quality (Where the ladies at? is prone to glitches)  and questioning why there are more single men than women in the 25-35 range, and why there are more single women in the 45+ category. Some of the more entertaining suggestions include that “women get increasingly, er, large in their older years” and that women get married younger and outlive their husbands.

Quality and margin of error aside, Where the ladies at? Is a simple concept which uses data that has already been sourced—and for free! The only dangers, I think (apart from stalkers, but if you had one, you probably wouldn’t use Foursquare, anyway) is that the site might:

a) Send a pack of meatheads into a place where a group of ladies were just trying to have a good time (thereby turning your favourite bar into a meat market … gross),
b) Send a pack of vitamin-D deficient tech-nerds into a place where a group of ladies were just trying to have a good time (thereby turning your favourite bar into a mass of bumbling awkwardness), and
c) Limit the kinds of women Where the ladies at? users meet (internet dorks and/or self-absorbed cultural elitists?).

Nevertheless, Where the ladies at? might be coming to a city near you. Soup for one, be done!

Valley of the Trolls

September 26, 2010

In the 1960s, Jacqueline Susann invented shameless self-promotion for the author. Observers claim she spent more time promoting her novel, Valley of the Dolls, than she did writing it, with Truman Capote notably remarking, ‘That’s not writing, that’s typing’. Nevertheless, Susann’s novel about struggling actresses in Hollywood went on to sell more than 30 million copies. But why? Because it was good, because it was what the public wanted, or because she created such a buzz around her book that everyone wanted to know what the fuss was about?

I don’t have an answer to that question, but it does raise interesting issues about the way authors are now required to market themselves. This happens mostly through the internet (one website suggests that authors keep a blog, get websites to link to articles about their book, get their friends to review their book on Amazon, and ‘write articles  discussing the merits of  [their] book’), but also through self-funded tours, and even selling copies of their book out of the boot of their car.

We all know that there are countless blogs kept by authors for the purposes of promotion. The popular ones seem to be both highly personal (so much for the Death of the Author … ) and tantalising (offering exclusive excerpts, giveaways, etc.). But further than that, authors are getting even more marketing-savvy. The Washington Post wrote an article last year on this very issue, using mother-turned-author Kelly Corrigan as a case study of self-made success. Not only did she do all the usual publicity work herself, spending thousands of her own dollars doing so, but Corrigan got on a brand-spanking-new bandwagon. In yet another correlary to the film industry, books now have trailers. Compared to book tours, these trailers are inexpensive and easy to distribute through the internet.

Book trailers are one of the newest promotional outlets. Everybody’s got them, little video commercials for their books, something like movie trailers. Grisham’s are 20 seconds; Corrigan’s is about two minutes.

John McWeeny, chief operating officer at TurnHere Inc., a media production company based in San Francisco, has seen his company make “hundreds and hundreds” of these videos since it got into the business in 2006. He’s hired mostly by publishing companies, he says, but a bargain-basement video for a writer working solo would cost about $2,000.

“We’re not shooting talking heads in studios,” he says. “We’re capturing a story about the author, often on a location relevant to the content of the book. It’s a way to convey the meaning of the book in moving images and sound . . . and relative to the cost of a tour, it’s extremely inexpensive.”

Corrigan made her own, using the iMovie software on her Apple computer and posted it on YouTube, getting over 100,000 hits. She also posted a video of a reading she did at a bookstore, which went on to get 4.5 million hits.

They say any publicity is good publicity, but when will all these in-your-face authors become obnoxious, if they haven’t already? Do all these bells and whistles cheapen what, in the end, we hope should be good writing?

Maybe, just maybe, there should be fewer Jacqueline Susanns and more Thomas Pynchons.

Girl, eNterrupted

September 19, 2010

I talk to people face to face. I communicate over long distances by phone or by mail. I go to a bank branch to manage my accounts. I play games the old fashioned way, with balls or darts or hoops. I live without the internet.

When my housemate’s ex-girlfriend came over to collect all of her things, I expected that she would take the usual household goods (electric kettle, bookshelf, etc.), the absence of which would be mildly inconveniencing. But I didn’t count on one thing: the wireless router and modem were hers. Ha! So, I wouldn’t go on Facebook or check my e-mails for a couple of days. No biggie.

It was then that I discovered that I do most things—which, oftentimes, are the most important—with the help of the internet. This metaphysical highway of information, with all its time-saving utility, was not infallible. Sure, it was only my house that was affected this time, but what about the ‘devastation’ caused by the internet outage caused by the Taiwan earthquake in 2006? What if one day the internet just died?

The irony of keeping a blog for class and losing access to the internet is not lost on me. Other than that, I couldn’t get my submission to my editor, I couldn’t do my class readings from home, I couldn’t check my bank balance … I couldn’t even pay rent! To do all of these things, I had to sit, as I am sitting now, in a depressing little cubicle in the Baillieu library, surrounded by the glare and deafening hum of fluorescent lights (a primer, I suppose, for my future office job).

But where convenience died, the internet’s number one adversary could thrive: without the internet, shit gets done. I deposited money at the bank, I went grocery shopping, I cleaned the house, I practiced guitar, and when I sat down to study for three hours, three hours of work actually got done. I was able to relax that night guilt free. What a revelation!

A quick Google search pulls up a surprising amount of how-to articles about living without the internet. It’s interesting, that we need to know how to survive without it. Such tips include going to the library, writing a letter, using a (gasp!) telephone, or unbelievably enough, having a face-to-face conversation.

Researchers have paid people absurd amounts of money to go for a month without the web because it seems like such a deprivation to subjects:

It’s a sign of the times that to get people to agree to the deprivation in the first place, researchers paid as much as $US950 ($A1,310) per household. In video diaries, participants talked about feeling “withdrawal” as they resisted the temptation to log on.

“I’m cringing…. It’s almost like a fast,” said Glecia, a mother in Chicago who often spends at least an hour online when she comes home from work. One man was so eager to get back online that he said, “I’m even looking forward to seeing spam.”

They were allowed to use the internet for their jobs, and if they absolutely had to do something personal online, they were asked to record these as “lifelines.”

Nearly half got along for two weeks without any lifelines, while the others used a few, mostly for financial matters.

At least three-quarters said they spent more time talking on the phone, watching TV or movies, and reading newspapers.

Some reported visiting their neighbours, playing games, and exercising more.

Many of them complained about the inconvenience of having to look up numbers in the phone book or pay fees for paper documents such as airline tickets. At work, they missed escaping into the internet during downtime.

Last night, a girl was incredulous to find that my friend’s phone (a non-smart phone) didn’t have access to the internet. ‘Sacriledge!’ she must have thought. ‘But how do you keep everyone you’ve ever met up to date with the minutiae of your every day life?’ The answer is, you don’t. I read an article in The Age’s Good Weekend section which documented a night out for a group of 22–23 year-old girls. A DJ at their favourite club complained that the dance floor was always full of anti-social texters and social networkers always planning their next move and never enjoying the moment.

In my opinion, a week without the internet can do you a lot of good. Rather than observing the lives of people you barely know while your textbooks gather dust and your to-do pile grows embarrassingly large, try studying the old fashioned way and have some spare time to converse in real time, with your real friends, in the real world. I’m not saying the internet isn’t a precious commodity. All I’m saying is that your time is more precious.

Note: awesome collage missing due to limited internet access. Don’t worry, I will make it up to you.

Webcomics: Awesome

September 12, 2010

A comic from the Diesel Sweeties archive

Distracted by blogger burn-out and encroaching illness, I discovered that this week’s blog post was going to be a strenuous task. So, I thought, what do I really like about digital media? What fond memories do I have of first using the internet? And then I remembered: when I was about fifteen, and had nothing in my room but boredom and a computer (well, I guess I had a bed, too), I was hooked on Diesel Sweeties, a pixelated webcomic about indie kids and robots.

Unlike fiction or poetry, or even opinion columns, comic book format (or ‘sequential art’) translates easily to the internet and can become incredibly popular there. It is a way for web users to get their opinions, irks and interests published without bogging it down in long pieces of writing.

Webcomics, a largely free art form, began around 1992 before the internet even came into common use. Comic strips like Where the Buffalo Roam were initially posted on forums like Usenet, but had to be downloaded in order to be seen: with the invention of the internet browser, webcomics are instantly viewable and are easier to browse.

Interestingly, webcomics need not be particularly well drawn: some comics gain kitsch value from being made using nothing but Microsoft’s free MS Paint program. Ally from Hyperbole and a Half has gained a staggering audience through crudely drawn (but hilarious) paint pictures and anecdotes about her extreme social awkwardness; nevertheless, the facial expressions of Ally’s characters really lend themselves to the crazed elements of her writing. Cyanide and Happiness and xkcd use mostly stick figures, but make up for underwhelming artwork with biting wit and relatable content.

xkcd, a very popular webcomic, has a particular style of humour

Ally from Hyperbole and a Half's characteristic extreme humour

The writers at Comic Book Bin suggest that:

Since their inception during the early days of the Internet, web comics have tended to be less rigid than their printed cousins. Early readers of web comics were much more tolerant of non-traditional content while the low cost of creating and publishing web comics allowed anyone to join the party. Like any new medium, web comics have created a forum for new voices and new creative visions. More importantly, web comics have carved out a growing niche in the world of sequential art that will be evolving continuously for the foreseeable future.

Webcomics allow for greater creativity of form and extremity in perspective. It seems that if you’re getting the content for free, it doesn’t matter if its artwork seems slapdash or its opinions zany or inconsequential. I think that due to their humour and usability, webcomics have the potential (if they haven’t already) to overtake zines as a medium for young people to express themselves.

‘I’m sorry, Dave’: The Internet and AI

September 5, 2010

It’s clear from how increasingly accustomed we all are to technology that things have been changing in a big way. A lot of us can’t imagine our lives without search engines, social networking and smartphones, all of which are relatively recent phenomena. Younger generations are so used to interfacing with machines that they seem to have no problem dealing with robot doctors, robot teachers and robot counsellors. Disturbingly, the US is even using robots to wage war: Unmanned Aerial Vehicles or ‘predator drones’ independently conduct air strikes against ‘enemy’ nations.

But aside from the traditional fears of singular machines outsmarting us and ending ‘the human era’—fears which have been explored in many Hollywood films, like 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Matrix trilogy—scientists have more recently been entertaining the idea that the internet count develop artificial intelligence. The internet has access to our data: it knows what we do, what we like and how we communicate (since we so frequently do this electronically). Ted Holmes summarises Wired writer Kevin Kelly’s predictions of how this could be possible:

The Internet is the largest and most reliable machine in human history, consuming 5% of the world’s electricity (2008 figure). 5000 days ever growing, never stopping. 100 billion clicks a day, 55 trillion links, a billion connected PC chips. Every second 2 million emails, 1 million IM messages and 8 terabytes of traffic move throughout this organism. 65 billion phone calls per year, 255 exabytes of hard drive storage. It behaves like a brain with neurons, automatically connecting ideas to each other. Roughly equivalent to the processing power of the human brain, it doubles in power every 2 years. By 2040, it will match or exceed the processing power of humanity.

Google assented to rumours about its research into AI when co-founder Larry Page said to a room full of scientists at the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science conference, ‘We have some people at Google [who] are really trying to build artificial intelligence and to do it on a large scale … It’s not as far off as people think.’  Last year, Google took the piss out of doomsday theorists by playing an April Fool’s prank on the web community: it claimed to have created artificial intelligence in the form of a teenage girl, CADIE (Cognitive Autoheuristic Distributed-Intelligence Entity). CADIE seem to have created her own webpage on which she shared her personal experiences and process of learning about the world; like much of Google’s stunts, this was nothing more than an advertisement for their new ventures, and a bit of a laugh.

Google's AI stunt: CADIE's blog

For now, I’m to remain sceptical. Though Alan Turing believed that if a machine could simulate intelligence that it was genuinely a cognizant entity, the internet’s unimaginable collection of data can’t compare to human reason (yet). I’m with you, Lady Lovelace.