I recently attended a talk by Hannah Goodwin on the fragmentation, alteration, and deletion of female bodies in digital media. I found her approach to deletion compelling, and was inspired to revisit an old project of mine that used and altered found images. For that project I wrote a script to gather images from the now-defunct Mass Traveler webcams, and created an algorithm to blend multiple frames together over time.

Coolidge Bridge Dec21

The technique has the effect of hiding almost all individual movement, much as Louis Daguerre’s 1839 photographic image, Boulevard du Temple, erases everything moving except for the shoe shiner and their customer. In my case, the traffic camera’s purpose is inverted to create a landscape that is devoid of traffic. Daylight scenes become surreal as the familiar bridge appears strangely unpopulated. As evening falls, the cars paint in light on wet pavement.

The theme of erasure is relevant to this moment, as algorithms and artificial intelligence shape more and more of the images we see. To wit, my Google Clips arrived yesterday. It is a camera that decides for itself when to take little movies, looking especially for happy faces and pets. Whereas the technological (de)selection of subjects in work like Daguerre’s was somewhat arbitrary, it has now become driven by opaque algorithms.

I find it interesting that for all the high tech wizardry behind this new device, it still has a shutter button and a lens ring to turn. In mimicking older forms of technology, these elements make the device intelligible to people more familiar with “dumb” cameras. This also serves to lessen our apprehension as it gets to know our family and waits for us to smile.

Even with the safeguards that Google has built in, such as avoiding cloud processing or automatic uploads, Google Clips is not neutral. I began to feel uneasy as my daughters looked at this thing over the breakfast table. I don’t want to undermine their sense of sanctuary within our home, which we’ve cultivated by keeping out devices like Alexa. In family settings especially, this new tool could begin to erase a sense of the private, unobserved self for people who cannot give their consent. Whether that’s an inevitable consequence of an artificial photographer or just a possible pitfall of using it around children remains to be seen.

The Reach of Our Senses

The news that the Voyager Spacecraft has left the solar system and entered interstellar space fills me with happiness. Launched in 1977 – the year I was born – this little tendril of technology has extended our senses to the planets and now to the edge of our celestial neighborhood. You can actually hear a change in pitch from Voyager’s sensors as it passes the interstellar boundary. It senses, and communicates.


Continue reading The Reach of Our Senses

Simultaneous Publications

The networked mind is hard at work:

“There is a widespread belief among teachers that students’ constant use of digital technology is hampering their attention spans and ability to persevere in the face of challenging tasks, according to two surveys of teachers being released on Thursday… The timing of the studies, from two well-regarded research organizations, appears to be coincidental.” –New York Times

Far from coincidental. Just one more example of multiple people around the world consuming the same media diet, exploring the same possibility space, and generating the same intellectual output at the same time. This is the visible activity of a super-consciousness. Continue reading Simultaneous Publications

The Networked Mind

Several years ago, when blogs were young and the “blogosphere” was just beginning to get crowded, I came up with a neologism to describe it, the “clogosphere.” And what was the first thing I did with this burst of creativity? Turn to Google of course, to see if I was truly original. Unsurprisingly (in retrospect), there were already ten results for my clever new term. I cursed to myself, and began declaring to anyone who would listen that “If you think you’ve had an original thought, just google it and be humbled.”

from Cat and Girl by Dorothy Gambrell

So, you can imagine my surprise when I was reading one of my favorite web comics and they made the very same point about Google deflating your sense of creativity. My insight into creativity was applicable to itself in a very “meta” sort of way.

This is certainly “a condition of modern life,” but as a historian of technology I know how often the simultaneous emergence of an idea or invention has cropped up in the past. If you live in the United States you were taught that Thomas Edison invented the electric light, but at least half a dozen other people around the world are held in similar regard, including Joseph Swan in England and James Lindsay in Scotland. Continue reading The Networked Mind