Archive for October, 2006

you get the picture

Tuesday, October 31st, 2006

Silence is a commons – Ivan Illich

collective intellection

Tuesday, October 31st, 2006

The origin of the words art and entertainment have a lot in common. Their essences seem to be a notion of bringing people closer together. A few nights I went to Melissa Moore’s SoundPillow to hear some new works by John Berndt entitled Three Ambiguities. The pieces were excellent and the ambience of SoundPillow – six or seven blue, circular seats facing each other around a blue-lit basement space with a good sound system – was conducive to deep listening. There were about thirty people who wanted to listen the thirty minutes of music and John had to keep things moving so that everyone could have a chance to hear the works.

Last week, as a part of Baltimore’s Free_Fall events, I was involved in a project at the Cork Factory that will culminate in a micro-radio event in the Station North District featuring audio created by residents that speaks to their experience living in the neighborhood. In brief, participants will record a few minutes of spoken words and broadcast their ideas on short range fm transmitters all tuned to the same frequency. Visitors and residents can then walk or drive through the neighborhood and listen at any time. The content is entirely up to the residents, and can change at any time. The key to the work is to provide the opportunity for us to listen to each other.

In preparation for the recordings, and to familiarize ourselves with the neighborhood and locate participants, my collaborators and I have participated in various events, the most recent at the Cork Factory. This last event involved about eleven people, a diverse (age, race, ethnicity, orientation, etc…) group, sitting around a table with a microphone on it (I think the presence of the recording device was a great help, see below) speaking about community. In order to establish a comfortable atmosphere for expressing ideas, we set up some very simple ground rules, principally that overtly judgmental, contentious, argumentative statements would not be verbalized – instead, they would be suspended – not repressed, or ignored, simply suspended within the mind. We imagined giving our will to judge a vacation, and realized that it is an essential aspect of who we all are. Instead, we decided to voice experiences, associations, or observations that integrated one participants experience with another’s. The last caveat was that we would work to listen and accept – not blindly agree with – but accept (i.e., think through until we understood the idea) whatever anyone wanted to say as a legitimate aspect of the dialogue. If we disagreed, that is fine, but the idea was to contribute relationships we experienced between whatever was expressed in the dialogue and not pass judgment on what was said. Simple rules produced a complex result. Our dialogue went on for several hours (unforced, btw), and at the end it seemed that we had all become significantly closer. I had what felt like an aesthetic buzz for a long time afterwards, and when I came home, walked into my studio and saw this:


It occurred to me that much of my actions are intended to bring me closer to others: lecturing, teaching, art making, but, post Cork Factory, I questioned my reliance on the creation of gizmos, and the paradigm of performer/audience to do it. My practice seemed to be placing a gap in a gap, to be complicating my will towards integration, when what I seemed to really respond to (I’ve had the aesthetic buzz many times before, but this time it was of a longer duration which seemed to be because the connection I’d established with others was not one of triangulation via some social [performer/audience] or plastic [gizmo] construct) was the close up, real time act of face to face integration with others, at the “conclusion” of which we were still in the same positions – suggesting that what we’d just experienced was readily available and didn’t require additional hardware.

Back to the SoundPillow, and how this started, I wrote: “the origin of the words art and entertainment have a lot in common. Their essences seem to be a notion of bringing people closer together.” Sitting in a comfortable room on Argonne St, seven people facing each other. Of course I thought back to the Cork Factory Dialogue and wanted to just listen to these people I had just met. To connect with them one person to another, and to work on how our varied experiences, as vast as they are, can be associated to form a glimpse of the complex nature of our collective experience. But that wasn’t necessarily the plan, and that is ok, this is not a criticism, it is an expression of my experience and a portrait of how, really, the present is a mix of remembrances (past) and anticipations (future) and how our “own” understandings are connected to others’ ideas, and how, perhaps, there are forms of interaction, even “forms” of intelligence: intellection, founded on a practice of listening hard, thinking collectively, and working to associate all the experiences within any group. George Lewis, a fabulous improviser, refers to this social form as multi-dominance.

I left the SoundPillow thinking that our mechanized, individuated culture has defined intellection perhaps too narrowly and located it somehow within one person’s mind. Yes, if you, or I proceed along a developmental path of greater and greater limitation of possibility, until we become “masters” of a certain abstract body (or part of a body) of knowledge there is a decent chance we will be respected as such. Our intellective practice will be understood to have produced a clear result, and we will be rewarded with a higher level on the pyramid of personal achievement.

We are a significantly homogenous, and deeply social species: we depend on each other, and the collective, to survive, literally, yet we seem to relish and even worship the concept of transcending the group. It is as if our social forms are so fundamentally unfair, complicated, and controlled from elsewhere that we idolize those who seem to escape – while simultaneously knowing that there really is no escape from the collective. Our structure seems to rely on being able to position ourselves as individuals in relation to those above, and those below. We celebrate competition and praise rugged individualism. Our Freedom is a freedom from – to reference Kant, among others. Instead of taking action to make it better for all of us we take “action” (I worked for a guy who used to say “not saying something is saying something”…) that makes it great for a tiny subset of people. Given our inherent and seemingly necessary closeness this system we’ve been cultivating strikes me as odd, and utterly reversible.

The physicist Lee Smolin says, “there is a city, but no city maker”. We are the city and its’ makers and the construction unfolds in real time – it happens glocally – where the local is a focal point of the global, where the unfolding is a collective act and the moments of enfoldment, of clear focus, where we experience ourselves as individuated, when one’s experience is understood for a moment as clearly, uniquely one’s own, is literally an ephemeral focal point of the collective process. we are part of a complex collective and our glocal actions are all equally essential to its development, yet we maintain the illusion of servitude to some absent authority while multi-dominance is always at our fingertips.

I feel strongly about developing models, or metaphors, to aid me in exploring the idea of what I’ll term collective intellection (I should probably develop a better sounding phrase, too…). My instincts are to build some gizmo or network a bunch of stuff, write some scripts, do some programming, build something – but the act of building things on my own seems to segregate me from others – cooped up in my studio. Also, for me, designing things seems to be a sort of “duty now for the future” routine. I will build this thing for a future event that will suggest other future events, etc… I imagine researchers being engaged utterly in the present as they work – noting cause and effect relationships, trying things, looking for/creating/engaging connections – a process similar to musical improvisation. It seems that the tools I need are actually improved integrative techniques for the building of the now (I need to become a better listener and learn to balance my ego with the other aspects of my, and other’s experience to understand by engaging the complex nature of the present), and it will be better, and more accurate, to engage in this practice in concert with other people – and, it seems to me, with as diverse a group as possible. The idea, in short, is an understanding of higher intelligence as an environment in which as many members as possible are being heard (implying serious listening and thinking on the part of each member of the group), and what they are expressing is understood as a fundamental element that must be supported in the developing structure. The degree to which the experiences of the parts are supported by the structure of the whole is the measure of the intelligence of the group. You can see this is a different model then the individuated human off in a room by themselves developing a branch of knowledge that, purportedly, is for the common good.

Our inherent collective, de-centralized nature seems obvious but creating social forms that respect it as such seem elusive. To demonstrate: try to organize a diverse (race, socio-economics, age, orientation, ethnicity, etc…) group of fifteen members and speak aimlessly while listening actively for several hours – working hard to accept other’s points of view without competing with them, and bear this in mind:

The concept of a field in physics describes the integrating property at a point in space of adding up contributions from various individual particles, so that individual contributions cannot be identified, only their sum.


And the sum, like the collective process from which it comes, will be multivariate, and take on different meanings when it is collapsed into and individuals frame of reference – and the depth of our understanding of the sum of our collective actions will necessitate the collective action of groups listening to each other and exploring the connections among the individual experiences expressed by its members. Shared, relational intelligence. The resulting constellation of experience is the real answer, and this practice may provide an appreciation of the complex nature of our experience while affording agency to each member of our society. We need to be able to connect all the dots to glimpse the complex picture. I suggest we develop forms that explore this practice.

the faster we go the rounder we get, but movement may be an illusion.

Friday, October 13th, 2006

I just read “Could it be a big world after all?” by Judith S. Kleinfeld, a re-examination of Stanley Milgram’s “small-world” aka “six-degrees of separation” study. The following will make significantly more sense if you look over Judith’s paper.

Her abstract is here:

“The idea that people are connected through just “six degrees of separation,” based on Stanley Milgram’s “small world study,” has become part of the intellectual furniture of educated people. New evidence discovered in the Milgram papers in the Yale archives, together with a review of the literature on the “small world problem,” reveals that this widely-accepted idea rests on scanty evidence. Indeed, the empirical evidence suggests that we actually live in a world deeply divided by social barriers such as race and class. An explosion of interest is occurring in the small world problem because mathematicians have developed computer models of how the small world phenomenon could logically work. But mathematical modeling is not a substitute for empirical evidence. At the core of the small world problem are fascinating psychological mysteries.”

My point:

The internet is connecting us with the people all over the world, its true! Even people from different social casts – something that seems truly amazing: but the people from other social classes are quite probably connected to us and the internet in the sense that they are working in differentiated areas connected to the web. Meaning that the internet is built and maintained via an all too familiar division of labor where job is more often than not associated with class, similar, if not identical to the offline world. There are the people working behind the scenes, “under the hood” of the internet: programming, building the hardware, or answering the phones at the outsourced tech support centers, and people using the web for entertainment, research, etc…. the usual divisions.

We’re “in touch” via the internet but under the conditions of the divide and conquer mentality of the recent past – so we’re really not any closer as a species – it’s not like we’re actually making friends with people from other countries AND other classes. Sure, we’ve all met people from other geographic regions – sometimes online, sometimes at an event – a conference or festival, but I’m wondering if, aside from a different mother tongue, if the people we feel we are genuinely connecting with, becoming authentic friends with, don’t already have a lot in common with us – and that commonality may very well have to do with class – I’m tempted to say education, too, but while similar education certainly goes a long way towards creating resonance with others, I’m still wondering whether, at the end of the day, if our primary common linkage, the thing that resonates strongest and bonds people most readily isn’t socio-economic.

Of course there are exceptions, but given all the hype about the small-world and global village we are all being woven into – think carefully about your MySpace experience, I’m wondering whether we’re not really mapping the “old” social cast system, developed over the past centuries or more, into the “new” wired world. Lawrence Lessig, among others, makes the point that the freedoms we experience now are in proportion to the degree to which we can fight off the attempts of the past to re-establish itself in the present.

The web as metaphor suggests a more equal relationship between participants than we are currently experiencing. That more equal relationship will be very different than what most of us are familiar with.
Are we willing do the work and take the risks to make the promise of greater integration real?


squirrelly man

Thursday, October 12th, 2006

Listened to Mark Hauser interviewed a few days ago about his book Moral Minds. He said:

“…our moral faculty is equipped with a universal set of rules, with each culture setting up particular exceptions to these rules.”

We have, according to Hauser, a biological basis for our sense of morality. Morality as an instinct, common to our species, and cultures tend to contest these impulses in various ways, and in so doing establish identity – the ways it chooses to manage and respond to its collective impulses. This “consciousness at the point of conflict” can scale up to national identity or down to individual identity. I’ve been reading David Bohm lately in preparation for a project and the notion of proprioception (self-awareness), and the thought process being very much connected to judging activities and generating conflict is a theme in his later work – his ideas are that we tend to overthink and complicate our lives, and that we should take a lesson from the other systems in our body. But more on that later.

I understand the exceptions we create in response to our instincts as boundary conditions – something that we can establish a dialectic relationship with – that enable what we have come to understand and identify as selfness, or consciousness by establishing a perpetual conflict – that conflict is the perception of choice when faced with an impulse.

We have to decide what to do, we have become aware of our inner mental processes and a relationship we have with them. We are continually discriminating and triangulating between our inner, moral faculty and the resulting impulse(s), the particular cultural exception(s), and the actions of those we share space with as they navigate the same terrain.

As a personal point of reference, after I heard Mark’s interview I went for a walk and noticed the squirrel activity in the street – gathering acorns. I don’t drive but a friend who does describes Fall as the season when squirrels temp death for acorns.

What came to mind is the fact that the squirrels’ impulse to gather and bury acorns is no doubt instinctual – and from what I gather, squirrels maintain a memory of where they buried an acorn for about twenty minutes (this is debated, I know), and the point becomes whether they are burying acorns for themselves, or for squirrels in general. They apparently mark their burying territory in just a few different ways, meaning that any hungry squirrel finding their self in a burial location would probably realize, instinctively, that acorns were nearby. In addition, the qualities that make certain acorns attractive to squirrels are the same qualities that make the acorn a good candidate to germinate and grow into a tree – so the relationship between oak trees, acorns and squirrels is complex, environmentally balanced, and doesn’t seem to require too much of what we call thinking.

Given the environments that we build for ourselves I wonder what we respond to instinctively, what are the “unconscious”, physical elements of our environment – what generates a response that is palpable but not conscious, and is the unconscious a relationship we have with elements of our built environment – does the unconscious exist at the intersection of our internal (senses, brain) and the external (the elements of our environment)? Everything is physical, right? Perhaps the difference between unconscious and conscious experience is the degree to which conflict is generated – the degree to which we can experience a choice in our response to specific elements within our environments.

I certainly don’t have an answer for this but the idea of our identity and even memory existing as an active relationship between internal and external may be supported by something I read regarding the sensory deprivation experiments by Dr. John C. Lilly – he of altered states fame. Apparently, after several hours in the tank, subjects would emerge without knowing their names, ages, marital status, address, etc… this information would gradually return to them within about forty minutes. Very interesting.

“wherever-u-art”, a little cellphone video study. one take, no edits.

Wednesday, October 11th, 2006

mirroring thingies

Tuesday, October 10th, 2006

I admire Jan Chipchase’s blog(s) for the way he seems to be locating elements wherever he is that: relate to his research, suggest questions, represent ideas or, generate concepts. He is exploring active connections between his mind and the artifacts he encounters. He documents these interactions and posts them in a way that, to me, suggests that a blog is a shared thought object – as much about the content provided by the author as the fact that it will be seen and considered by whoever happens to find it. Jan’s posts are expressing his interests while asking “what do you think?”. My experience has been that I leave his site and take his observations and, perhaps more importantly, his observational practice into my offline experience, where they integrate with whatever happens to be on my mind, and expand the dialogue I seem to be having with my own environment. In short, Jan’s work seems to have made me a better, more willing listener.

Jan is a scientist and researcher, and works for Nokia. As such, we can assume that his efforts are close to the ideas of the mobile web, perhaps the internet of things, maybe even Web2.0. This makes sense to me as I experience the mobile web (cell-phones, pda’s, rfid, semacode, qr, ar, wifi, bluetooth, etc…) as extending the form of the www beyond the desktop. The de-centralized, personally customizable, collective, interactive “form” of the web is being mapped onto the offline. As the points of contact and interaction within any environment are expanded, the electronic gizmos we haul around with us will have an increasingly active and overt role in the meanings we harvest from time spent within different spaces. This seems to be a model of something familiar.

A couple of years ago I was teaching a course on computation and interactivity and was preparing a lecture on how we use tools to compute our identities. I was motivated by something Ron Kuivola had said during a meeting while I was a grad student: “we train to the medium”. In preparing for my lecture I read some of Dr. John C. Lilly’s writings about his experiments with sensory deprivation tanks, and was struck by his findings that after several hours in the tank, subjects would emerge having forgotten key elements of their identities: name, age, where they lived, etc… slowly this information would return to them once they were out of the tank, but I was intrigued by the idea that our memories are embedded within our environments, that our identities are formed and exist at the active intersection of internal and external, and are not stored within our individual brains, somehow apart from the external world. After doing some research I concluded that we, as a species, have sensed this, and acted on it, for a long, long time.

It seems we are always pinging the environment and adapting accordingly. I heard an interview with the physicist Julian Barbour where he mentioned that the human body is producing and destroying 100 million million hemoglobin molecules every second, and that if one were able to view this life-death-life cycle through a powerful microscope the structures we would see second by second would be indistinguishable from each other. My point is that with each second we are coming into being and probably engaged in a persistent act of connecting, interacting, and establishing a relationship with our environment. Over the past few hundred years, however, we (especially in the west) have become fascinated with breaking things into discriminate parts, atomizing and analyzing our experience – our consciousness as very much “ours”, creating dialectic arguments based on the polarities of two concepts that are proven to be irreducible to each other: robust categorical thinking, sites of discernment, focal points of discrimination, development along a trajectory of greater and greater mastery of one distinct activity at the cost of a radical limitation of other potential experiences, etc…

The development of the internet seems to have coincided, or simply be an aspect of, another form of development, and we seem to be experiencing a shift towards understanding relationships between things, systems, interaction, and integration – a developmental trajectory of greater integration and broader experience.

Much of the latter seem embodied in the internet, and are expanding with it into the mobile web, which seems to be an excellent model of a dynamic, integrated, and interactive relationship between our selves and our environments.

As long as we don’t forget that it is a model, and, like any model, that its purpose is to create better understandings of our experience, leading to other, increasingly accurate models that will undoubtedly supercede what we are working with now, we will be ok. If we fetishize our current tools and prize them above the ideas they embody we will have some problems.

The tools of the mobile web and their potential for explicate, overt networking both locally and globally within various spaces are modeling our dynamic relationship with our environment, providing tangible forms to explore the idea, specifically, that “we” exist at the intersection of the internal (individuality, brain, sense organs, consciousness, ego) and external (that which is beyond our skin, the non-human, inanimate, built, collective), and the elements of both are engaged in active, persistent relationships of mutual influence – intercourse, in other words, where one does not exist without the other, and where both are tightly coupled and dynamic. The categories, the differences, don’t matter: what counts is the interaction.

“We train to the medium”, so said Ron Kuivola. There is a responsibility with creating objects, as the objects, made by someone and an embodiment of an idea, speak their intentions and interests to those who use them.

If we accept the web as model of a collective, evolving form it can teach us to become better listeners, and, if we chose to learn to listen, and take that knowledge with us into other interactions then regardless of what forms our models take we will develop along a trajectory of increasing empathy and greater integration within our species and our environments.

shared thought objects

Monday, October 2nd, 2006