Drone Ethnography

Paul Raven @ 25-07-2011

Adam Rothstein has a knack for naming things of which we’re as yet only fleetingly aware of as cultural forces. Here he is guesting at Rhizome with a piece on drone ethnography:

Okay. I thought it was clear, but if you want me to spell it out for you, I will. You are obsessed with drones. We all are. We live in a drone culture, just as we once lived in a car culture. The Northrop-Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk is your ’55 Chevorlet. You just might not know it yet.

I have thirty-five browser tabs open, and each contains a fragment of the drone-mythos. Each is a glimpse at a situation, a bird’s eye view of the terrain. So many channels, showing me the same thing: near-infinite data collection. With the help of Google, I’m drone-spotting—I’m turning a new critical perspective that I’m calling Drone Ethnography, back on itself.

All of us that use the internet are already practicing Drone Ethnography. Look at the features of drone technology: Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), Geographic Information Systems (GIS), Surveillance, Sousveillance. Networks of collected information, over land and in the sky. Now consider the “consumer” side of tech: mapping programs, location-aware pocket tech, public-sourced media databases, and the apps and algorithms by which we navigate these tools. We already study the world the way a drone sees it: from above, with a dozen unblinking eyes, recording everything with the cold indecision of algorithmic commands honed over time, affecting nothing—except, perhaps, a single, momentary touch, the momentary awareness and synchronicity of a piece of information discovered at precisely the right time. An arc connecting two points like the kiss from an air-to-surface missile. Our technological capacity for watching, recording, collecting, and archiving has never been wider, and has never been more automated. The way we look at the world—our basic ethnographic approach—is mimicking the technology of the drone.

Go read the whole thing. Go on.


Itsy-bitsy teeny-weeny 3D-printed beach bikini: herald of the fashion singularity?

Paul Raven @ 07-06-2011

N12 3D-printed bikini from Shapeways3D printing just isn’t going away… which has interesting implications, given that the economy’s still deep in the tank and manufacturing is becoming a race-to-the-bottom industry in terms of labour cost. “But you can’t print anything useful and everyday with ’em, Paul! Who needs another tchotchke of their World Of Warcraft avatar, anyway?” Well, sure, we’ve probably all got more bits of purposeless plasticky crap than we need, but the technology is maturing fast, as demonstrated by Shapeways announcing the N12 3D-printed bikini from fashion house Continuum.

Obvious caveats up front: one look at Continuum’s Shapeways store-page will show you prices that aren’t going to undercut high-street retail’s sweatshop textile prices any time soon – the halter straps alone are around €20 each!

And – call me cynical if you like – the N12 strikes me as being far more about raising the public profile of Shapeways, Continuum and 3D printing in general than it is about selling bikinis; it’s a powerful media vehicle, and not just for the novelty/titillatory value that the tabloid editors will seize on (or that those who still find the need for even the most vestigial excuse to print a picture of a skinny model in very little clothing will seize upon, at least).

The fabric and design of the N12 are both “native” to the technology used to create them; you couldn’t just buy the fabric and stitch the clothes together from it manually, as the announcement page explains. This is about revolutionary design potential, a hint at the possibilities ahead as the technology matures and the costs come down.

There are cultural considerations to think about, too. The rise of “fast fashion” houses based on the hypercheap and quickly-changed sweatshop designs reflects a cultural desire for fashion as another medium through which the individual consumer can create and communicate their personal identity quickly and cheaply, as discussed in this excellent essay at N+1:

As the fast in fast fashion implies, the companies’ comparative advantage lies in speed, not brand recognition, garment durability, or reputable design. They have changed fashion from a garment making to an information business, optimizing their supply chains to implement design tweaks on the fly. Zara “can design, produce, and deliver a new garment and put it on display in its stores worldwide in a mere 15 days,”2 and this flow of information is by far the most significant thing the company produces, far more important than any piped pinafore, velveteen blazer or any of its other 40,000 yearly items. The company’s system of constant information monitoring allows it to quickly spot and sate trends and at the same time largely avoid overproduction boondoggles and the need for heavy discounting.

Unlike earlier generations of mass-market retailers, like the Gap’s family of brands (which includes, in ascending order of class cachet, Old Navy, Gap, and Banana Republic), companies like Zara and Forever 21 make no effort to stratify their offerings into class-signifying labels. They also don’t adopt branding strategies to affiliate with particular luxe or ironic lifestyles, à la Urban Outfitters or Abercrombie & Fitch. Instead they flatter consumers in a different way, immersing them in potential trends on a near weekly basis and trusting them to assemble styles in their own images. Clothes reach stores with practically unspoiled semiotic potential, and consumers are invited to be expressive rather than imitative with the goods, to participate more directly in fashion. We become the meaning makers, enchanting ordinary cardigans and anoraks with a symbolic significance that has only a tenuous relationship to the material item. We work in lieu of advertisers to reconfigure trends and remix signifiers, generating new and valuable meanings for goods. The more new clothes come in, the more creative we can be.

The problem with fast fashion, as already alluded to, is that it depends on highly exploitative labour. This will remain the case until (or, if you’re more of a pessimist, if) fabbing technologies reach a point where they can compete on both unit price and the rapidity of concept-to-product process. At that point, the resistance in the positive feedback loop between consumer and designer becomes almost negligible; everyone becomes a designer/remixer, and the textile factories go out of business almost overnight. Now scale that level of disruption out into all the other industries where 3D printing and fabbing could replace human workers once price parity is reached… that’s something of a singularity, in that it’s a hypothetical point on the future timeline that’s very hard to imagine our way beyond.

In the near-term, I expect 3D printed clothing will remain a catwalk and network-culture novelty for a while, worn more for what it represents than what it looks like, and bought as an expression of futurity in opposition to the still-dominant cultural mode of retroism, as well as a badge of affluence. But as the technorati set grow in their influence as celebrities in their own right, and as the notion of a new form of authenticity (uniqueness through truly bespoke design rather than through unattainable vintage rarity) takes hold, that may change quickly.


OpGaGaRah and the Celebrity Singularity

Paul Raven @ 26-05-2011

There are many reasons I like Ryan “Grumpy Owl” Oakley, but his view of celebrity culture is one of ’em. Here he is invoking the ghost of Guy Debord to ask whether the celebrisphere is contracting toward its very own singularity:

Today, I watched Oprah’s final show then Lady Gaga Live.

They seem to be very different entertainers but they gave the same speech with the same message. Oprah talked about her hard-knock life, told people that if they just loved themselves, their dreams would all come true and nothing could stop them from being happy and successful. Gaga talked about her hard-knock life, told people to follow their dreams and love themselves and nothing could stop them from being famous.

After all, it worked for them, right?

[…]

Right now, in a corporate laboratory, scientists are creating OPGAGARAH. They’ve tried before. Tyra Banks was their most recent failure. But they will get it right.

Then, we shall have one media personality who appeals to every demo/psychographic. A monopoly on all culture. A common goal that tells us to love ourselves and our dreams will all come true. A psychic hegemon to cower before while aspiring to be. Someone that both parent and teenager likes. A beautiful monster that eats life and shits profit.

I hear you, Ryan. For all GaGa’s supposedly transgressive behaviours (and, for the record, I think the most interesting and important thing she’s done is speak out in vocal support of non-heterosexual lifestyles), she’s an accelerating convergence of all the banal pseudotransgressive and titillatory po-mo pop tropes of the last thirty years or so, slowly accreting into a black hole that will hoover in money and attention until it collapses in on itself; like an overclocked Madonna aimed at the dissipating heart of popular culture.

The sad thing is, I don’t think she even realises it; like all the best pop stars, her belief in the independence of her agency is what makes her powerful, but it also blinds her to her own status as a puppet of a dying industry that will sell anything to keep its business model – and the executive carpool, natch – rolling for another few months.

[ Side note: I think the suggestion that GaGa – and others – are starting to sell transhumanist tropes into the mainstream actually supports my argument; last year’s transgression is this year’s coffee-table culture, and they’re running out of more acceptable novelties to peddle. ]


Faux-vintage photos, authenticity and atemporality

Paul Raven @ 17-05-2011

More drive-by linkage for ya, bub – and this one’s a two-fer. First up, Nathan Jurgenson delivers a three-part essay on the deeper significance of the fad for faux-vintage photo processing apps, e.g. the Hipstamatic:

I submit that we have chosen to create and view faux-vintage photos because they seem more authentic and real. One does not need to be consciously aware of this when choosing the filter, hitting the “like” button on Facebook or reblogging on Tumblr. We have associated authenticity with the style of a vintage photo because, previously, vintage photos wereactually vintage. They stood the test of time, they described a world past, and, as such, they earned a sense of importance.

[…]

The faux-vintage photos populating our social media streams share a similar quality with the inner-city Brooklyn neighborhood rich with authentic grit: they conjure authenticity and real-ness in the age of simulation and the vast proliferation of digital images. And, in this way, the Hipstamatic photo places yourself and your present into the context of the past, the authentic, the important and the real.

Then, next day, Adam Rothstein (yup, him again – what can I say, he’s doing a lot of interesting stuff in my info-river of late) gets all definitive on the term atemporality, and skewers Jurgenson’s theorising in the process:

Atemporality is the point at which this temporality begins to break down, though still in a temporal way. We still have a sense of time, but the wide span we call “history” begins to get weird loops, whorls, and whirlpools in it. The usual cycle of fads booming and busting grow eccentric, and spin oddly off-center. The idea of what is “current” begins to break down. We have trouble remembering if something used to be common a long time ago, or if that was today but maybe in Japan, or if maybe someone simply suggested that it would happen soon in the future. The river of time spreads out into a brackish salt marsh delta, and we know time is still flowing, but we don’t remember where it was we were trying to go. Were we trying to go? What does that even mean?

[…]

Anyone offering authenticity has something to sell you, and likely, a something you do not need. They try to convince you that the way you are doing it is not as “real” as something else. Funny–because reality was just fine before they came along. Before they tried to monetize a particular world-view, to increase the value of a certain temporal commodity by claiming to be the exclusive arbiter of what is authentic and what is forged and fake. And we wouldn’t want to fool ourselves either; this is a capitalistic world, and everything ends up bought and sold. Any particular atemporal trend will end up named, stamped into a commodity, and sold, until stretched into a thin veneer of shiny, zombified goo. But that’s okay, because we already have a friend that we met in a comment thread, that can get us that real shit. The Real Shit, because it is the stuff we want and nothing else, and because we’re getting it from the source that we know and trust. That is the network, and that is atemporality. All real shit. No authenticity.

Go read both in full. Go on.


eBay: cloud storage for physical objects

Paul Raven @ 13-05-2011

From the Alt Text comedy column at Wired:

Most of my old games are now eBay-bound — eBound, if you will — as are most of my old books. I don’t think of it as getting rid of them. I still have them, right on my phone.

And if I want them in physical form? Well, I’ve stopped thinking of eBay as an auction site. Now I think of it more as cloud storage for things with measurable volume. I’m putting my possessions into the cloud, and if I want them again I can retrieve them from the cloud for a small fee.

Sure, they won’t be the exact original items I once owned, but that doesn’t bother me any more than it bothers me that the 1s and 0s I retrieve from Evernote aren’t the same electrons I originally stored.

Compare and contrast with the last Viridian Note from Bruce Sterling a few years back:

You will need to divide your current possessions into four major categories.

  1. Beautiful things.
  2. Emotionally important things.
  3. Tools, devices, and appliances that efficiently perform a useful function.
  4. Everything else.

“Everything else” will be by far the largest category. Anything you have not touched, or seen, or thought about in a year – this very likely belongs in “everything else.”

You should document these things. Take their pictures, their identifying makers’ marks, barcodes, whatever, so that you can get them off eBay or Amazon if, for some weird reason, you ever need them again. Store those digital pictures somewhere safe – along with all your other increasingly valuable, life-central digital data. Back them up both onsite and offsite.

Then remove them from your time and space. “Everything else” should not be in your immediate environment, sucking up your energy and reducing your opportunities. It should become a fond memory, or become reduced to data.

Of course, even as a short-to-medium-term storage medium, eBay is horribly clunky and expensive to use (not to mention lossy as all hell), but it’ll have to do until fabbing technology and truly ubiquitous digital media archiving catches up. The worrying thought is what we – as a culture, rather than as individuals – might lose in the period between now and then…

… but given that my ridiculous and ever-growing library of dead tree books contributed hugely to making my recent house move a waking nightmare, I’m starting to wonder whether I care as much as I think I do. Or rather, more than I should.


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