Thursday, September 1, 2011

Assignment 1: Response

Natalie Jeremijenko and Benjamin Bratton explore the dilemma of aesthetic presentation in pervasive data collection-- in the the discourse of eco-activism and individual empowerment in the context of the trend in data-centric production of new media art. The concept of "ubiquitous" aggregation of data through sensing techniques invites their analysis of the politics of both authority as it pertains to the element of the "missing expert" and of non-human objects as receptacles for meaning in the wider social construct. The theme of their discussion focuses largely on the dilemma of fact, what is taken as fact and by whom. They question the conclusions that such data presents, and who is responsible for the conditions and methods that lead to such conclusions. Although institutionalized control of data collection techniques may prompt us to question the integrity of the facts presented, Jeremijenko and Bratton convey an opportunity for the artist to present data as malleable, open source and non-expert. Jeremijenko's reference to "structures of participation" conveys an acknowledgement that there is a need to augment the relevance of these streams in the lives of the individual, while also providing the individual with a legitimacy as both an investigator and a change agent.

In her discussion of the interface, I agree with Jeremijenko's assertions that refining the aesthetic production as a means to present a compelling finding that resonates with the "everyman" has a better chance to further spurn advocacy both locally and more widely if such an approach is repeated through locales. Her engagement of the audience in the most visceral sense is what I appreciate most about Jeremijenko's works. She places the physical object in the center, as a force that must be acknowledged and questioned. In her piece No-Park she places the object in a public space of high foot and automobile traffic-- where the piece commands acknowledgment and invites the question "why". The invitation for questioning is thrust even more directly toward the spectator in her "tad pole walker" project (Video: start 3:23), in which tad poles are immersed in various water supplies and paraded through public areas as part of a study of water quality on tad pole development.

Although I applaud Jeremijenko's efforts to empower the public at large through education on how to transform the robotic dog into an instrument of data collection, I see the role of her as single source supplier as a problem. She is controlling the means by which data is collected for others in advising them, thus participating directly in the issue of data integrity. What if all of the sensors she promoted were not manufactured properly and thus collecting data that is inaccurate? Does the individual activist / artist / non-scientist have the means to question this? As her group is a singular entity with a mission, supported by a narrative, it participates as a political body-- a politicization that both Jeremijenko and Bratton imply would be best avoided with the effort to more effectively reach the average person.

In referencing work that I feel alludes to issues of environment and consequence more effectively is Olafur Eliasson's The Weather Project: (The Telegraph: "A Terrifying Beauty") With the scale of its presentation, a cataclysmic sun hanging in their midst, the audience is forced to contemplate its meaning relative to our own existence-- a starkness that loudly calls for social mobility.

Reading Response 1 - Situated Advocacy

The article hits on quite a few important points, the first being that of data quality. It’s such an important topic yet it is easy to overlook in any visualization, especially when the viewer is unfamiliar with the process. A very close friend of mine is working on community-level environmental action programs in lower income Chicago neighborhoods and has told me that often the participants in their field studies do not understand the difference between weather and climate. If the target of environmental awareness has trouble discerning between macro and micro levels of information, it is probably safe to assume that little thought is even given to the source of the data and the implications of its quality in regards to the information they are being presented with. If the target audience is so detached from the data gathering process, how can the visualization of the culled information really have any meaning? Bratton hits on this idea in referencing the “beautiful ‘data-smog’ projects modeling ambient urban-environmental information in one way or another” that are essentially more works of art than deployable information systems. Not only can the source of data be called in to question here but also its presentation. Transparency and accessibility are key in conveying information to those unfamiliar with any subject.

Jeremijenko’s Environmental Health Clinic is surely a clever idea, especially by making use of the idea that doctors operate outside of politics. This addresses the transparency of information, but is it accessible? In terms of low-income neighborhoods, how likely is a resident going visit an Environmental Health Clinic? The issue is deepened further when Bratton & Jeremijenko talk about better datasets by way of the collection and submission of individuals. In areas of concern, how realistic is it to think that residents have access to computers, an internet connection, and the ability to install sensors? It’s a wonderful dream.

The ability to translate data to information, and to advise an action based on it is powerful. In Manual Castell’s “Rise of the Network Society” there is a major idea where the network (internet) allows for a horizontal power system - more smaller nodes can connect to, inform, and react to one another. This is in opposition to the vertical power structure, typical of most any governmental structure where there is top-down flow of information and orders. In the vertical system the lower tiers have less ability to effect the higher tiers, whereas in the horizontal system “power in numbers” takes precedence and the flow of data is more evenly distributed. To this Bratton & Jeremijenko are much aligned when they speak of greater numbers of data sources being gathered and submitted by non-political entities. The power is there, so how do we make it work? The horizontal power structure has edges when you bring it back to low income areas. It is in these areas where the vertical power structure is still at work because the horizontal system is inaccessible. Does the increase in data availability on the horizontal system further separate it from those who are under a vertical system? It’s a bit of a side-track, but it’s something the article has made me think about. It’s not just an issue of awareness, but of haves and have nots, of surveillance versus sensing, of making real connections that matter beyond social networking, and of trust in the power of the systems at use.

Daniel Bennett - Reading Response 1

In the their published series of conversations, “Situated Technologies Pamphlets 3: Suspicious Images, Latent Interfaces, “ Benjamin H. Bratton and Natalie Jeremijenko attempt to “explore the implications of ubiquitous computing for architecture and urbanism: how our experience of space and the choices we make within it are affected by a range of mobile, pervasive, embedded, or otherwise “situated” technologies." The impetuous of the discussion is how to reassign agency to various groups to collect, analyze and implement various forms of data.

The authors begin by noticing a flaw within the way data can be misrepresented in it’s display through various visualizations. The data itself at it’s current state is flawed, data that is presented “without asking how the data is generated, who collected it and under what conditions. That is, what does the data actually represent? The criticism of how the data is produced is left out.” The breakdown is that the majority of data sets (especially in health and environmental areas are only amassed when they are need for research to a solution. Having said this, the research is conducted by “non-experts” and the wrong agendas are being considered during collection. So as we dig we find the problem lies deeper than the visualizations of this data, or that the data is gleaned without proper consideration. It can go as deep as why/how the data is required and who sets this collection into action, those in position to say we need collection (which in itself colors the data before it’s even considered HOW to collect the data).

They identify the status quo of public agents that are elected (or are un/officially represented) by peoples or organizations that have an inherent agenda. The two identify this problem as a loss of participation in the choice of change/observance by electing someone to make a decision, saying that by voting you are giving up your right to affect a change in those decisions.

“Democracy of representation or representation of democracy.” Particularly Jeremijenko believes that those inhabiting the space should be collecting the data that affects themselves, “those with less purchasing power have less agency to affect the public space and act upon environmental issues that are immediately important to them.” She calls it a bottom-up approach. This data can be analyzed by the artist/analyst to mitigate what is actually being represented. “I have always defended both the amateur and the role of the artist in complex technical phenomena, in biotech [other field listed]” she says, which has a history in current art/action projects. Steve Kurtz and Critical Art Ensemble (CAE) have drawn attention to genetically modified food (Free Range Grain), genetic research and use among others. As a side, Kurtz stood trial and was acquitted because of his use of material.

Both Bratton and Jeremijenko believe there is an immense usefulness in having the public sector collect information. While I do think it is a crucial role the citizens of a locale perform, I believe it should first be organized and mitigated by an artist. This leads to a social trending that puts the research ahead of dredging through what a group of data is suggestion simply by initial analysis. This could be akin to a scientific method approach: hypothesize, predict, test, evaluate/improve, resolution.

An example of this “middle down, then back up” approach can be seen in research initiated by Microsoft called photosynth (TED talk, Important info @ 3:30). All the photographs on are tagged with metadata (informational data added to networked content). Photosynth marries these interconnected packets of content to form a much broader and complete view of our world. By another user linking to my content it then enriches my content itself. From these spaces purposed by artists, viewers can participate and see what is happening though action. This could be an example of as Bratton cites, “image of the collective …They are political images, and forms of “post- social” collective representation.” Through the collective we can both produce and observe what social trends are actually occurring.

An interesting check and artist could provide between taxpayers and legislators is one of ethical supervisor. An example of homeless-proof public structures could be altered, maybe instead of the homeless sleeping on benches as a problem, you could address the homeless population's struggles in your community.

Chaz Evans - Jerimijenko/Bratton response

In this conversation Bratton and Jerimijenko discuss the role and impact of ubiquituos computing on participatory democracy and environmental health. A central motif and question that they often coming back to is how do non-human objects have more agency in a "parlaiment of things"? Can this be achieved with more sensors on more non-humans reporting back more data, and then who collects, interprets, and has access to this data? For the most part the two of them, and especially Jerimijenko, advocate for a more decentralized collection of data where anyone can participate in the production of knowledge toward environmental health. Bratton is a little skeptical of this, as it sounds like a cliche open-source kind of ideology to him. Jerimijenko sticks to the importance of this open data system, but also suggests that the way to establish such an open data-collection system is through the actions of the artist as a "non-expert expert" who stands in for the everyman in a discussion with scientists.

I really like this article because there is so much to agree with and so much to jump in and start taking positions against, reading makes its own micro-politics between the conversants and the reader. But, Jeremijenko's position to me sounds self-contradictory in that she seems to like the idea of increased agency and a broadened base of participatory democracy, but this cannot come about without embracing a certain degree of elitism to bring this about. The everyman represents themself by letting the artist represent them. This doesn't quite make sense. Artists speaking on behalf of everyone is just as dubious as scientists doing the same thing.

But as contentious as that stance is, they both really bring it back around in a nice way when they discuss how the inflexibility of a system is what allows flexibility to flow through it. This I think I'm very on board with, and I also think may help defray Jerimijenko's artist-favoring comments. What I think they are getting at is you need to have some infrastructure, and its needs to work well, but it only needs to determine really low level decisions. This infrastructure of course would have some impact on its use, but perhaps with that little bit of autonomy taken away, a small possibly trivial group decision, a relatively open and variable system can flow through. To put this is far simpler and perhaps reductive terms a little organization goes a long way. This seems to resonate with Cory Doctorow's Siggraph keynote speech where he went about discussing a copyright system in very similar terms. We need copyright, but only a little bit of copyright that doesn't micromanage and speak for people it shouldn't. Once a copyright system gets too specific and begins to micromanage, it only priviledges those who established the system and no longer benefits those it was supposedly made for. This seems like a nice balance point on the scale of control. We don't have to be 100 percent anti-system or 100 percent modernist tyrant. We can take a little of the latter and get a lot of the former.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Reading Response 1-Jon Chambers

With all of this information that communities and societies can gain access to from remote sensors all over the world, how do we use this data for change and progress? Jeremijenko  and Bratton seem to think that this information can change the contemporary authoritative structure by giving access to “the people”; information that was until recently only afforded to scientists, or as they call them, “experts”.  This article starts out by critiquing data visualizations made from ubiquitous sensing as a mode for authoritarian representation. Jeremijenko states that “The criticism of how the data is produced is left out; unless this criticism is engaged, it doesn’t make for a meaningful visualization. If we don’t question how the data is made, we cannot make sense of it. Producing a nice diagram is not all that is required in making sense of something.” (13) By being able to gather and critique this data that is usually reserved for the “expert” community, people can change the power structure: “So we can have (and have had) environmental data collection, and we have a regime where most of the data collection has been done under these regulatory compliance protocols. And now we have the capacity to have this collection occur under alternate pro­tocols or through a different institutional framework, operating with different models of participation.”(20) They seem to think that it is the artist’s role to interpret this data into a meaningful interface for the community.

For instance, Jeremijenko’s project Environmental Health Clinic, prescribes her patients to change the way they live/behave in order to become healthier. She states an example about asthma, and that instead of pumping your child up with medicine, change the air quality in the environment. That sound great, and I suppose they could ride a bike instead of a car, but how can the individual compete with the corporation? They are the ones doing major polluting, so this idea of collective power through gathering sensor data doesn’t really do anything unless the power structure in society can change. Jeremijenko states that, “The capacity to contest, to be in the position to have an opinion, to question the evidence, is where these ubiquitous computation devices can really contribute.” (34) This could happen, but I don’t think through gathering data and showing that you have different data than the government or regulatory companies will change too much.

Later in the article, Jeremijenko states that, “There is a crisis of agency that may or may not be resolved by and/or attributed to the technologies of ubiquitous computing and sensing.” (38) She then goes on to talk about how environmental agencies are conflated with consumer dollars “with the responsibil­ity of your consumption”(38) I though this was great. Bratton then says, “And in that scenario, the image of the future is for data clouds to render on the sides of cereal boxes, where, for example, the transparency of their conditions of assemblage and “carbon footprints” become the discourse through which these objects display themselves to us as interfaces into a vast supply-chain.”(39) The image of being green or healthy is another interface sold to consumers. They then critique that the idea of buying into this corporate green movement image isn’t really doing anything and that one should question the motives of these corporations.  So again, there is a problem with the image of data.

Reading this article and thinking about how the world is becoming one big sensor, reminded me of the Pachube project created by Usman Haque. There are sensors from all over the world being fed into this database and anyone else can harvest this data. I do find myself asking the same questions in the article: why do we need all of this data and how can we make it meaningful? Is measuring the wind in China arbitrary? I will admit, though, that it is cool.

Response, Week 1: Suspicious Images, Latent Interfaces

Natalie Jeremijenko and Benjamin Brittan’s pamphlet “Suspicious Images, Latent Interfaces” introduces a critique of what can often prove a critique-less form of information gathering and distribution, including the current InfoViz craze. Both understand that data is never neutral, indicating both a bias of the source and its purveyor. They demand a criticality that assigns agency to all relevant parties, as well as a recognition of the political possibilities of the project. As Jeremijenko sketches some of her own hyper-critical and political projects, both she and Brittan challenge existing modes of representation through “computational media” (Brittan’s phrase) and attempt to delineate a practice that uses these tools to engage in an experimental political practice.

One of the greatest strengths of this conversation is the conviction of both the participants; this, of course, is backed by both Jeremijenko and Brittan’s practices, interventions into some of the greatest monoliths in modern society - for example, Jeremijenko’s The Environmental Health Clinic challenges deep-seeded beliefs embedded in the medicalization of society, where the environmental causes of “disease” are often ignored as the assumption indicates the functioning of the body as internalized and individual.

An unfortunate example of this, outside of the text, can be found in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago’s near southwest side. The Sun-Times ran an article this summer that indicated that this neighborhood has levels of lead that are 10 times the EPA safety regulations. According to relevant medical literature, lead poisoning is often a cause for concern amongst children of low-income families, as childhood learning disabilities and longterm health concerns often go unnoticed. In conjunction with soil concerns, the Fisk Coal Plant is responsible for making Pilsen one of the worst neighborhoods in terms of air quality, and has long been connected with the sharp rise in childhood asthma in that area.

The real test, it seems, is to turn the idea of what constitutes “truth” or “authority” upside-down, and to re-present the data in a way that turns a critical eye toward the producer and consumer. In addition, there exists a challenge to the viewer - there is a distinct provocation, or at least an opportunity, to act. For example, the Yes Men cultivated a hoax protest against a coal plant being built in a wealthy neighborhood:

This protest highlights their occupation of the Fisk Coal Plant entrance, where they resurrected their “SurvivalBalls” project about a year and half ago:

The Sun-Times article about lead levels:

The Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization (P.E.R.R.O.) has launched their own website with information about the negative effects of the Fisk Generating Station: