16 February 2010

Pattern Recognition

Monday morning, 11am, reading "You Are Not a Gadget" by Jaron Lanier. He is writing about Pattern Recognition. Actually Lanier writes about a lot of things in fragmentary paragraphs that seem to have originally been separate magazine articles, both online and off, amalgamated, collated and aggregated into a single book. He writes about MIDI restricting musical creativity because digital notes cannot reproduce the full tone and timbre of an analog instrument, limited as they are to a series of 1s and 0s, ons and offs, perfectly suited to duplication but impossible to call unique. Our online lives have become MIDI, as pop music has reduced itself to fit the restricted structure of MIDI so too have our digital selves restricted our sense of actual self to fit in with the categories of singe/married/its-complicated and 140 character reflections that 'Social' Networks demand. By categorizing and classifying we reduce our humanity, stripping it away in chunks to fit the standardized molds that are now ubiquitous and infinitely duplicated. Uniqueness is no more than your fifteen pieces of digital flair emblazoned in widget form on your personalized file in the world's largest marketing database. About me? My virtual farm has four sheep and a fence. What kind of Starbucks Coffee are you? I'm a skinny mochalocaccino.

Friday afternoon, 2:18pm, sitting in a cafe on Fade St, looking out the window onto the street. The glass of the fire-escape door forms an L shape with the main window, as I look through the door the reflection from the window is thrown onto it, the left side of the street is reversed and superimposed upon the right side, both equally bright, equally visible, equally existant. I strain my eyes to see the man walking, is he on the left or the right, real or reflected? The woman at his side, is she walking in step or approaching him from the opposite direction? Will they ever meet or are they only connected in my eyes, a trick of the light? In "The City & The City" China Mieville writes of two cities occupying the same space, superimposed upon each other like the reflected couple in the window of my observation, an infinitely recursive mirror with the citizens of each trained from birth to unnotice the Other. Seeing the Other is a crime, the worst crime, a 'Breach' for which punishment is swift and absolute.

Monday afternoon, 12:56pm, the Guardian Online reports of protests in Bil’in, a Palestinian town bisected by the Israeli Peace Wall. 60% of the town's land has been annexed by new Israeli settlements. Every week since 2005 the locals have held protests at the face of the security line that divides the two communities. Both groups live on the same land, believe that land to be theirs and theirs alone, and outside of their regularly scheduled conflict fastidiously try to ignore the other. This week the youth of Bil’in dressed up as Na'vi from James Cameron's 'Avatar' and marched to the Wall to highlight their plight. The reality of what Jimmy Carter calls an Apartheid state is no longer enough to move a digitized, catgeorized public to action. It's complicated. We can only emote when events are portrayed in day-glo pixels with an epic soundtrack. Analog reality we can no longer grasp, but render the trauma of Bil’in in a digital template and the sense of familiar allows us to see.

Friday morning, 11:30 am. The Library Room of the Central Hotel, meeting and discussing plans for a Space. Stewart Brand's "Whole Earth Discipline" is on my mind. GMO is good, says Brand. Nuclear Power is good, says Brand. Capitalism is good, says Brand. In 1968 Brand launched the 'Whole Earth Catalogue', now considered to be one of the starting points for the Green movement. In 2010 he, like James Lovelock and many others, says he got it wrong. Techo-industrialism may have caused our global woes, but it is now the only thing that will save us. I disagreed with this, still disagree with this, but Brand is on my mind because he's right about one thing, cities are the only sustainable future. In 2007 we crossed a threshold, for the first time in history more than 50% of the world's population were urban. By 2050 the number could reach 80%. Cities have smaller birthrates, better access to education, more opportunities for women, and collective access to resources places less of a drain on those resources than the sum of all individual's access would be in isolation. But city living comes with a price generated by the reality of being human, the desire for privacy in a confined environment, the social convention to purposefully not look, not see, the need to unnotice the Other. A digital city compounds this need with a drive to unnotice the Self. For a City to sustain itself it needs places where the Self can encounter the Other. These places need to be analog, not solely digital. Minds meeting only in Midi create conversations formed along templates. Last year I asked what should I do. "Make a Space" was one answer, and so I am sitting with others developing an analog space.

Monday, 22:08pm. "Information wants to be free" said Brand, apparently the father of the phrase. Lanier says information does not deserve to be free, information is inanimate, information is an artifact of human thought, information is alienated experience, information isn't real, only humans are real. But it occurs to me that humans are only real when they notice the Other, and the Other notices them. "I see you" say Cameron's Na'vi in greeting to each other. "See us" say the youth of Bil’in in their costumes and body paint, "we are real, we exist, we are human".

Pattern recognition/A pattern of unrecognition.


It's complicated.


"You Are Not a Gadget" by Jaron Lanier
"The City & The City by China Mieville
'Avatar Protest', Guardian Online
The Village of Bil'in
"Whole Earth Discipline" by Stewart Brand

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At 3:44 pm, Blogger Niall Murphy said...

If music is possible, only allow unplugged instruments...

At 5:01 pm, Blogger 2BiT said...

Why Niall? seems like a shortsighted and unnecessarily limiting rule (I may be missing a huge dose of irony in your post there..in which case excuse me and read no further...)
There's a huge community of people making bespoke, personal and unique music making devices...a million miles from the world of MIDI...circuit benders, interface designers, synthesists, thereminists etc etc etc

(I see Laniers point but disagree with it...it's like saying all paintings are homogenised because they use the same canvas or paintbox. Sure in the hands of a bad musician/programmer you get homogenised results...but shit music is shit music. and sometimes even shit music is good!)

Personally I would much sooner see someone getting geeky on their synth/laptop than hear yet _another_ singer/songwriter pouring out their angst while I'm trying to drink my mochafrappalattechino...

I'm interested in this 'Space' concept of which you speak UD...and where does it fit in with the current spectrum? Which is admittedly under-resourced and under-represented... Seomra Spraoi struggle to make ends meet (despite a serious on-going hustle), the bodytonic crew seem to be attempting a fusion of arts/music with their venues (with greater 'commercial' success...by which i mean it's not costing them anything and they're in no danger of disappearing) and then there's the various Arts Council funded efforts (which tend to cater more to those plugged into that circuit).
How does another 'space' fit into this ecosystem and what will make it unique and viable? Unless of course we're speaking about the n'avii again and you refer to interstellar conquest?
bit of Devils advocacy here so don't go taking anything to heart anyone...

At 10:46 am, Anonymous devi said...

I'm all for first-hand 'analog' experience in all its richness, and for creating real spaces to meet in (good luck!), but I have to take issue with several of Lanier's points. I wonder how much electronic music he has actually heard? Extraordinary variety, creativity and texture are possible, and indeed usual, within it. Electronic music technology has also enabled great numbers of talented people to make music in their bedrooms where previously they wouldn't have had the space or resources, so you could argue that it's democratising music.

"Digital music can't be unique/interesting because it's made of 1s and 0s" sounds lazy to me, like an older person saying the young people's music is just a racket because they haven't bothered to listen. It seems to misunderstand the nature and scale of those 1s and 0s too, like saying a human can't be complex because s/he's made of small, simple cells.

Secondly, "seeing the Other". I take the point about trying to fit yourself into the rigid categories provided by sites like Facebook (I hate Facebook), but I have to say that my internet life has made me much more aware of and sensitive to many kinds of 'otherness' and the fact that there are more categories than I thought. Without the internet - communities and blogs and the like - I probably wouldn't be aware of the many shadings of gender, of the views of people of different ethnicities, or the prevalence of transpeople, for example, and certainly not how all those 'others' prefer to be engaged with.

I think in order to make that knowledge worthwhile, you then have to take it back out to the 'real world', but without my life on the internet I wouldn't have got it in the first place.

At 4:49 pm, Blogger Unkie Dave said...

@devi interesting thought on the grumpy curmudgeon bit.

Lanier writes that he often asks young folk listening to contemporaryish music if they can identify what decade its from, and basically if its music from the 60s, 70s and 80s they are able to do so, but if its a song they don't know from the last 20 years its difficult to pin it down to the noughties or nineties. his thesis is that since the prevalence of digital technology in mainstream music creativity has essentially plateaued and nothing new has happened over the last 20 years. He makes an exception for some forms of hip-hop because he believes the lyrics express genuine emotion and anger coming from the streets, though he seems to completely ignore that hip-hop is almost entirely derivative mash-up culture laying down rhymes over recycled beats.

He says that the ability to pigeonhole various forms of electronic music into dub, techno, trance etc is "more of a nerd exercise than a musical one", that the differences in styles are something that only someone wedded to a particular genre will notice.

again I disagree with him somewhat on all this, but as someone who lacks the ability to read music or play an analog instrument, digital music has indeed enabled me to express myself creatively as you suggest, so perhaps I am biased.

My initial thoughts on his thesis are a bit hazy, i agree with his assessment of the dehumanizing aspect of social network conformity, but disagree with him on the extent to which digital technology hampers musical expression and creativity. The old adage about guns don't kill people, bullets kill people might apply here in that it is not what the technology is that limits humanity/creativity, its who is wielding that technology and why are they pointing it at me that affects me.

Online space and communities can be real, when they develop organically between people. Artificial networks imposed on folks like Google's Buzz, or restricted networks that we must alter our sense of selves to be a part of like most Social Networks aren't creating a reality, as they are at their core a financial enterprise for someone outside that community who is profiting from people's interactions.

The same middleman/parasitic behavior exists in the mainstream music industry, too many folks come between the creator and the audience, all looking to make money on the backs of someone else's labour. By interjecting themselves between the creator and the audience they attempt to shape the conversation between the two groups in such a way as to maximize their own profit at the expense of real dialogue between the two groups.

At 5:01 pm, Blogger Unkie Dave said...

@2BiT There's definitely room for a Space quite different to either group you mention.

Seomra Spraoi are great and occupy the whole volunteer area along the lines of an Italian Social Centre. But the users of such a space tend to be self-selected by the culture of the space itself, grungy, volunteery and more than a little chaotic and haphazard, such is the nature of a collective, both its strength and weakness. I love their space and have always felt very welcome when I've dropped in.

Bodytonic is very definitely a commercial enterprise, their space (at least the Bernard Shaw) has definitely been a good location for a covenvergence of art and music, but it its heart its a bar and they are folks who like to run events at nightclubs.

I'm more interested in a Space that is professionally managed and maintained that brings together folks in the business, artistic/creative, social acton, scientific and academic worlds and what sort of ideas/actions grow organically from such interactions. I'm looking for something that will contribute to Ireland's Public Sphere in a way that maybe coffee houses did in the eighteenth century where folks from different traditions and backgrounds come together to debate and collaborate.

The Space as currently envisioned will be a mixture of physical space for commercial and social activities, with learning resources, artistic spaces and academic programs, along with mentorship from various experienced individuals in different fields, all deigned to stimulate inovation and creative along with public discourse.

My own interest in this is heavily influenced by David Edwards notion of Art Science, and his Le Laboratoire (http://www.lelaboratoire.org/) in Paris.

At 5:24 pm, Blogger 2BiT said...

Hmm..yes cool and all...isn't the Science Gallery on this tip too tho? And I'm pretty sure the Digital Hub made noises about doing something like this (but never brought much to fruition)

Not _wanting_ to be a naysayer (this couldn't be more up my street! unless it was actually at the top of my street...) but I'm a little skeptical as to whether there is room/desire/sustainability for the sort of project you're imagining in Dublin...I certainly hope so.
Yet Dublin often feels bigger than it actually is (it's a very cosmopolitan and vibrant city for it's size) and with the 'current economic climate' (TM) unless you've a magical way to cut your overheads to almost nothing I suspect you'll have the same day-to-day struggle to survive that Seomra Spraoi face.

Mind you this being yourself I can well imagine that you _do_ have a magical card up your sleeve and if anyone can do it... ;)
and of course...if I can help in ANY way....

At 11:42 am, Anonymous devi said...

@UD: "He says that the ability to pigeonhole various forms of electronic music into dub, techno, trance etc is "more of a nerd exercise than a musical one", that the differences in styles are something that only someone wedded to a particular genre will notice.":

I think this is true of everyone's musical preferences, regardless of genre: if you're immersed in one area you will see endless nuances within it, whereas areas you're not used to will sound largely the same to you. I would hazard that Lanier's own tastes lie outside the realm of electronic music, so of course he's going to think that.

From my point of view, the idea that you could think of a dub track and a trance track as the same genre is absurd (different shape, tempo, instruments, colour, mood; different to dance to and work to and travel to...), but I can't perceive distinctions between areas of (for example) blues or jazz or metal which are considered vastly different by their fans. Some of my friends can hear an indie-rock track and instantly perceive its lineage of influences and its precise niche in that world. I can't. Anything we're not used to will sound All The Same to us. It doesn't mean the distinctions aren't there.

By the way, I enjoyed the part of your post about the Avatar protesters. I had similar feelings after seeing the film, and did a cartoon about it.

At 1:33 pm, Anonymous devi said...

(Sorry, that sounds weird - I mean I *particularly* enjoyed the Avatar bit! The whole post was fascinating. And haha, best sketch edition request evar.)


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