Oct 15, 2012

James Bridle, Aaron Straup Cope, and I were part of the event Stories from the New Aesthetic held at the New Museum last Thursday (videos). You might recall now the panel I took part in at SXSW last spring, which spiraled into quite a lot of internet fuss sometime afterward (explained very well here by Will Wiles in a recent piece for Aeon magazine.) But this wasn't about that and it wasn't a reprise of the SXSW talks either. More of an opportunity to tell stories related to James' project — which, btw, is especially killing it right now — a source of inspiration to me and my writing. I must admit I was a little conflicted what to talk about at first, with some wavy ideas relating to Code/Space stuff or Rem Koolhaas Cronocaos kind of stuff. I might have framed it around this Bruno Latour quote — "The most complete panopticon, the most integrated software, is never more than a peep show" — if I read it earlier. But a few pimm's cups with Melissa Gira Grant one evening helped me out. And thanks again to Melissa, for being the kind of friend I can text: "a dozen multicolor latex helium balloons urgently needed. can u pick up at Village Party Store & cab over?" Because...of course...helium balloons. Anyway, here are scattered notes with links to some of the artists and projects I mentioned:

A little while ago, I signed up for a service so I could view all of my banking information in one place. Several accounts went in fine, but my primary account, an old credit union I’ve had since i was six or seven, kept alerting me with the error message "Your bank needs more information."

I clicked through, and it requested answers to security questions — the same ones I’d entered on the credit union page. But here was the problem — these were entirely different questions than on the other site. Nowhere, could I answer what is my first car, my first job, my paternal grandmother’s maiden name.

I looked over the dropdown menus on either page — dozens of possible questions — and found just several that matched up. But each of these questions asked for information about spouses or children.

Well, I don’t have a spouse or children. I could spend the afternoon calling a person to complain and wait for a fix or I could take care of it myself. Which I did. I found the workaround. And the workaround was to tell a story. To tell a lie.

I said I met my spouse “on the moon.” Something obviously invented. I made up a middle name for my "eldest child." Some of the questions were a bit specific — "spouse's favorite food" — so I had to give a personality to these imaginary people.

It made me think of Anais Nin, who, up until the end of her life, had two husbands — one in New York, one in Los Angeles. To keep her double life straight, she carried around a giant purse with two sets of checkbooks, two sets of prescription drugs with either married name. And she kept index cards in the purse for writing down each lie she told, so to never mix up her stories. She called her purse her “lie box.”

Here, I needed my own lie box just to do something as mundane as see if a check had cleared. I had to revisit this imaginary family when I logged in to either site. I mention this, because the web is full of this — it's full of lies and stories and the imaginary.

When I found a jellyfish lying in the sand one afternoon, I created a location on Instagram for “Enormous Fucking Jellyfish” when I uploaded it. Why not? It's a blank box, you can enter in whatever you want. You can take it as representation or you can bend it. You'll see this with things like swarms of people checking into “Snowmageddon” on Foursquare, or location data used to mark holidays, or emotions, or concepts and the like. The digital is not a mirror on us, it's not a perfect representation.

It is full of things that never happened — human abstractions, examples of us acting in make believe. The avatars, the sock puppets, false identities, mockups, renders, the fake. Reality is blended in it. And sometimes, it is the program or the network telling stories to us. Something not as intended, more accidental storytelling.

The most obvious example would be Apple's io6 mapping disaster. This is in the realm of the imaginary. It's the world through the looking glass, not a reflection. The artist Clement Valla collects these examples on Google Earth and wrote an essay recently about his findings:

[These] images are not glitches. They are the absolute logical result of the system. They are an edge condition—an anomaly within the system, a nonstandard, an outlier, even, but not an error. These jarring moments expose how Google Earth works, focusing our attention on the software. They are seams which reveal a new model of seeing and of representing our world - as dynamic, ever-changing data from a myriad of different sources – endlessly combined, constantly updated, creating a seamless illusion.

Here's an interesting project from Adam Harvey called "For Your Eyes Only," which creates objects that will spoof image recognition programs. As you can see, just stickers on an apple are enough to make it pass as something else entirely. Another story to tell machines.

The internet will never be a mirror. Nor is it a window. It's pictures. My friend Melissa Gira Grant wrote an excellent essay last year called "She Was a Camera" on camgirls in the 90s. In the essay, she quotes Ana Voog that the webcam was “a window into my house, into my life (not my life itself, a PICTURE of my life, please note the difference).” And picture can be a photograph or a painting, it can document or abstract.

Here's a more recent project with webcams, a project by the artist Dora Moutot, "Webcam Tears" To quote the artist's statement:

Computers became the witness/spectators of our lives. We eat in front of them and we fall asleep next to them. We talk through them, we dance, we laugh and we masturbate in front of them. But we also cry in front of them.In a time where showing genitals on the internet is not shocking anymore, tears are a new form of pornography.

When my friend send me the link to this site, we both wondered whether these clips were real or not. Undoubtedly some of these are staged. But, can you tell real from fake?

It is interesting that “are you real?” is still a question now, especially for women online. That whole nobody knows you’re a dog old chestnut never really went away. Because there is enough room on the internet to falsify and pretend. Plenty of false profiles on social media have been made to play or to deceive.

And some people —real people — might not be treated as such online. I love this project Civil Rights Captcha from Civil Rights Defenders because, not only is it a badly needed update to the broken CAPTCHA system, but because it supposes that if you are lacking a base level of compassion, if you express bigotry, you are relegated to second class bot level status on the internet. You aren't invited in.

Going back to the idea of tears as a "new form of pornography" ...when a relative passed away recently, I thought perhaps I’d tweet something, Facebook something but I decided not to, because I didn’t want to deal with the stress of people I don’t know telling me they are sorry for my loss. This is a common comment — Facebook is where you share your success, not your suffering. And this behavior means the picture is incomplete.

It's always good news on Facebook. It's always sunny on Street View too. The cameras can't really take images in the rain. So you see the places at their absolute best, always clear days.

Now you can go indoors on Google Street View. At first, I thought I'd done something in error, but the arrow let me in. And here there were all these broken, spectral people with faced blurred to anonymize. If you direct the arrow a certain way, they might flicker or disappear completely.

There was no fanfare. Tech blogs didn't go on about it. People weren't tweeting, it rolled out quietly, no one objected or found it strange. This was so natural an extension of Street View, there was no fuss over it.

But it is strange. Because while the people are an afterthought on the street —people use Street View for on the ground data, buildings, landmarks —when it comes it businesses, they are central to the point. We want to know the sort of people who grab a coffee at that cafe.

And you get a sense of the personality of the people who work there too. Google started with small businesses, rather than Starbucks that look the same anywhere in the world you go. These ornaments, the CDs stacked up by the register, the gleam of the silverware, and texture of the tablecloth are all revealing the kind of people behind these places.

There was a clever advertisement last year from Mercedes-Benz called Escape the Map, which explored the idea of what is uncanny about street view. The people with the blurred faces are called “echoes” and the protagonist is avoiding ending up as one of them,

The Sky on Trap Street is a Tumblr I learned about from James. Trap streets are fictional streets on a map. They aren’t unique to Google, London A to Z has them too. They are put on a map to catch people copying cartographic data. And this lovely Tumblr is screengrabs of the sky on those fake streets in Street View.

I invite you to consider that the Sky on Trap Street is no different than the ceiling of this presumably real toy shop in Austin, as represented on Google Street View. Place and time, reality and fiction, and all of those things discrete in the physical world are leveled in a way, when we think of what is digital. It doesn't reflect physical space like a mirror, as much as it's something else entirely. It's not radical to say the physical and digital worlds coexist, but it is strange to experience —at this moment— everything that evidences this difference. That is what is new.