BUILDING LINKAGE

I am looking for creative and illustrative ways to enable an audience to engage with, and embrace new modes of thinking that de-emphasize individuality while emphasizing groups and social ecology. We are in the beginning of an era where the individual, and individual achievements are becoming less important. Capitalism will have to adapt 1 as individuals begin to perceive their self-worth not as absolute, but as a particle or cell within a system. The individual will continue to function in a self-interested way, but unlike with previous modes; the individual will now operate with an awareness of it’s participation within the larger social network. Design becomes increasingly important as we begin to realize that it is no longer total technological innovation that will be the driving factor in social evolution, but the process of the individual losing part of it’s isolation as it begins to merge more completely with social organisms based over informational networks. In this time of rapidly evolving technologies it is imperative for the individual to maintain power through active agency within the network.

New ways to reuse some of the various architectural forms of virtual networks in applications for real-space are needed. There will be extensive developments in the evolution of architectural design for virtual networks, and simultaneously, global society has grown ever more dependant on virtual modes as the ultimate foundation for communication. For these reasons, it would be productive to reuse some of the lessons learned in virtual spaces in an effort to create new modes of communication and socialization in real-space. One can utilize the many new developments discovered by the evolution of virtual networks, as a vehicle to reconnect the individual experience in virtual space to related experience in real-space. Awareness of the social participation in both real spaces of interaction, and virtual spaces of interaction is key to integrating the individual’s current disparate awareness. Whether one is aware of it, or not, at this point every human being plays a role in both the virtual, and the real. Building hybrid systems of communication is like building a bridge from the familiar to the unfamiliar, like an analogy an individual might use to understand what action is required to reclaim whatever stakes they’ve left available by their passive representation within virtual networks.

Connecting the virtual and the real can take place in both directions, and making connections to real space from the virtual already has a long history — starting with the “Gang of Four” 2 ; Erich Gamma, Richard Helm, Ralph Johnson, and John Vlissides, borrowing heavily from Christopher Alexander’s 3 ideas of organizing the development of form in physical architecture into reusable, interrelated units. Experience and use has shown that some of the most meaningful applications have been modeled after real space configurations, particularly popular social networking applications. Additionally it’s important to look at how virtual applications, modeled after real space, have the ability to seem natural and intuitive because of their inherent familiarity. The proximity that a virtual-space has to it’s real-space equivalent lends to it’s natural interpretation as something real in itself. Hence, the evolution of programming constructs like “object”, “method”, and “attribute”, while useful to human understanding, always have to be compiled into something else before they become machine-readable. The same applies to higher level constructs like the metric of friends on www.myspace.com. Friend, in this instance, has little to do with the real-space meaning of the word, and mostly to do with a useful system for evaluating network authority and connectivity.

The coupling of virtual and real has been understood as a strategy for making the virtual more like the real, but what if we were to understand it also as a way to make the virtual and the real more interoperable? From this perspective it still makes sense that by making the virtual more familiar to a real user the relationship becomes more useful. Additionally we can see that to understand the real in a way that’s more familiar in a virtual perspective could also engender useful precepts. This leads to a problem I would like to tackle—all the people on earth today are represented somehow in a virtual network of informational exchange 4; This network has a controlling interest in the past, present, and future of real space, to the extent that the global economy is dependent on virtual networks of communication to sustain the level of production at which it is currently operating. This network is becoming, for the majority, our only access to collective memory 5, and the ability to verify fact 6. The economy of this network is the transaction of information, and every person is represented on the network as some form of information. Most people have little or no access to this network, and for the people who do have access; they are mostly limited to a passive presence 7. My objective is to work on ways of thinking that may help individuals through localized organization gain some influence in the economy of informational exchange in virtual networks regardless of their access to those networks. My first attempt at this is through modeling constructions of social interaction in real space, based on modes of interaction that have evolved in virtual spaces. I explain these in greater detail further down.

Early examples of human programming provide various leads and inspiration; Russian Constructivism attempted social engineering through aesthetic design, Allan Kaprow’s move away from his happenings and towards his more intimate scripts for activities 8, and the Situationist approach with it’s adherence to cultural mash-up and DIY aesthetic. I will look to find rules, circumstances, and conditions that can be applied to any individual’s behavior in a way that will benefit the coupling of virtual and real spaces. I hope to produce a collection of working examples that demonstrate various ways of how codes and programming might make transitions from the virtual, back into the real, and how through those transitions, valuable insight is to be gained in the ability to understand the individual’s virtual presence and self worth. We need tools that amplify our ability to affect the physical world through the manipulation of the virtual. Increased awareness of an individual’s active agency will lead to a recursive restructuring of the existing architecture of the network.

Allan Kaprow’s transition from the happening to the more intimate activity is most relevant to this project. Kaprow, around 1963, slowly started to develop more of an interest in describing a form of happening that didn’t involve a specific designated site of art, or art audience, and instead started to work on activities for small groups of friends and students to participate in an attempt of providing an authentic experience that embodies the potential of art and life at the same time, without making a distinction between the two. For Kaprow the separation between art and life was his primary concern in the development of his activities but as far as the activities relate to the work that I’m making, it is the effort to realize the value of the individual as it relates to a small social group. Some of the most exciting aspects of Kaprow’s activities were the moments of collaborative exchange, and the common agreement that people should be acting together in an uncommon and seemingly unproductive way. Also what I find useful in Kaprow is his re-contextualizing of social interaction that is normalized so that it may be attributed with new values, or even reused with the same values as if they were new. In this same way I propose that social interaction may continue to produce energy no matter what context that it’s staged within. It’s important to think about the strategy of displacement as a way of activating overlooked resources. An interesting extension of this work would be a system of re-contextualization that treated overlapping spheres of knowledge within a network the same way individuals were used in Kaprow’s activities. Rules of interaction and engagement that take into account not only the activities of the individual, but also the overall normative effects of various overlapping spheres of knowledge. So when Kaprow was thinking of the manipulation of normalized social systems on a level of how it affects the perception of the individual, there’s also valuable insight to be gained in looking at normalized social systems as individual units within the network at large. To address a normalized social system as an individual unit make possible more opportunities than what are possible in addressing the individuals that the system is comprised of. In a system where a pattern is unrecognizable sometimes it is necessary to operate on a larger scale. The collective movement of a mass of people is unpredictable even to the people that the mass is comprised of. The speed required to resolve information on the scale of individual identities in the age of mass media and hyper connectivity is too slow to have any relevant influence over any portion of the network larger than the individual scale. This is why social networking applications always have the need for some system of rank or authority based connectedness. Google made this approach famous by assigning page order to its search engine by factoring how many other pages link to the page containing the search terms. Individuals need to organize before influence is possible. This is why large organizations are learning to understand data as visualized streams of information rather than focusing on particulars. The amount data representing connected individual identities is now so massive that it’s comprehensible at the particulate level only to machines. Our interaction with data as it pertains to the individuals influence in the network is limited to the use of systems of abstraction and interface.

In order to find some measure of perspective within our current situation of media saturation, it is helpful to consider Guy Debord’s definition of the integrated spectacle in a revision to The Society of the Spectacle. Debord wrote Comments on the Society of the Spectacle in 1988 with one of the major revisions being the integrated spectacle, which he describes as follows. Originally in 1967, Debord distinguished two forms of spectacular power, the concentrated and the diffuse. Concentrated spectacle works off of ideology condensed around a dictatorial personality such as fascist or Stalinist totalitarian regimes, where diffuse spectacle applies to wage earners, and their vast maze of choices in the realm of commodities and consumption. Diffuse spectacle pertains to the Americanization of the world. From 1967 to 1988 Debord observed a new kind of spectacle developing, that he calls the integrated spectacle. He explains that through a need by a monopoly of power to maintain control, the integrated spectacle has evolved to incorporate both the concentrated and the diffuse, and in the process has learnt to employ both of these qualities on a grander scale. And it has integrated itself into reality to the same extent as it was describing it. As a result, this reality no longer confronts the integrated spectacle as something alien. With the concentrated and diffuse forms of spectacular society, the interpretation of reality moved at a more manageable pace, and therefore was much easier to manipulate. The integrated spectacular society has the tendency to move at its own governance, so strategies of action need to be adjusted in order to still be effective. Media status has now become the most important value in a framework of control that is based solely within the transfer of information, therefore can also be readily transferable just as currency is exchanged within a monetary control system. The added emphasis of media status has in turn produced a conditioning within the spectator to the effect that the perception of the present state of reality can be effectively manufactured. This is accomplished through the use of fashion as a surrogate for an objective historical knowledge 9.

Various channels of media distribution are used in the proliferation of one immediacy after another to produce a constant state of now to the point that there is no room for yesterday or tomorrow, creating in effect, a kind of noisy insignificance. Even as the construction of history slips into obsolescence, contemporary events have become confined to their current state of unverifiable stories, unchecked statistics, unlikely explanations, untenable reasoning…These descriptions offered up by Debord as predictions way back in 1988 can now be seen as the regular state of affairs since September 2001 and the gradual emergence of ubiquitous network connectivity 10.

World-altering events are decided on an individual’s character. What then are the implications of the fact that personal reputation is constantly demonstrated as a manufactured byproduct of the modes of media manufacture? When our only source for validation rides on the personal reputations of manufactured identities, we are lost in a vacuum of our own design, under the assumption that we are able to maintain perfect control of our environment. Since its impossible to perceive a reality outside of the scope of this media vacuum, we can’t make critical observations that are unaffected by the ungrounded noise of the insignificance of this integrated spectacle. On the inside there is only now. When something is not maintained in the public eye it ceases to exist. That’s not to say that it cannot be resurrected, it is just temporally unconnected to the reality of the present. A similar situation can be observed with the present state of surveillance within the central intelligence agencies of the United States of America. The integrated spectacle has managed to become so efficient that it has proven the C.I.A. to be ineffective. The central intelligence agency, once the prime representative of surveillance, and information manipulation, can no longer keep pace with the rest of the spectacular society. There is simply too much information streaming constantly, and the resources are not available to sort and process everything. Since 2001 there has been the realization, and proactive reformation, of the central intelligence agencies in an effort to become once again compatible with the current flow of informational reality 11. As Debord points out, once the running of a state involves a permanent and massive shortage of historical knowledge, that state can no longer be led strategically.

“The integrated spectacular society is in a state of permanent perpetual amnesia. We have become atomic media particles capable of carrying equal charge or discharge and freely exchangeable with any thing, person, or concept at any time. Everything is now an equivalent because meaning and reality are contained not within the message but within the transmission of information.” 12

The mesh network is made possible by a call and response protocol. While there may be nodes responsible for maintaining total connectivity, every particle of the network is required to respond in order to maintain the network’s footprint— its measure of reality. Within the call and response protocol, it is not so much the content of the individual signal particles, but the timing of the send and receive transaction that creates meaning. In order for two entities within a mesh network to establish connectivity, the first thing that needs to be agreed upon is the speed of transmission.

So far I have developed two examples of work within this project. The first example, called Bean Torrent, is a simple translation of a virtual construct to a form that is transferable in a real space. The second example, Peer Abstraction Interface or Peer AI, is a system of organization using a combination of collaborative production, and controlled anonymity. With this I’ve been trying to create an anonymous bulletin board system for a small group of individuals to cooperatively generate a microcosmic presence as a strategy for gaining power by leveraging their collective footprint both in real and virtual space.

The Bean Torrent is a game of the Mancala family that is designed to create a living memory of the file sharing protocol BitTorrent. The game is like other Mancala games in the sense that it consists of a simple board design, and some type of beans, seeds, or stones, for the game pieces, and consists of moving the pieces from one place to another. Bean Torrent is different from many other types of Mancala games in that the formal design of the board is nonlinear, and the goal is to distribute the pieces rather than collect them. The objective is to distribute all of the pieces evenly throughout the board with the least moves. The reason that I was interested in the Mancala family is that it has had the ability to transcend culture, time, and technology. I thought that by using Mancala as a conceptual vehicle it might be possible to maintain and preserve the fundamental principals of a network protocol beyond the constraints of the technology that it evolved from. This effort is important because it makes accessible certain social developments that are evolving from within networked culture to a much wider population, and reconnects the virtual with the real.

What kinds of effects could the BitTorrent protocol add to an indigenous agricultural society? Changes taking place in social interaction as it exists in the World Wide Web, and other digital read/write networks, are normally unavailable to any population that might be limited by its access to technology. Many theorists believe that this difference may create the rise of an ever more drastic split in social classes based not on monetary capital, but on access to informational transactions. Some people believe that the answer to this problem is bringing technology to the people who don’t have access to it. Leapfrogging 13 projects that try to develop an inexpensive laptop or ad hoc wireless networks in effort of leveling the technological playing field seem only part of the solution. The majority of the world’s population does not have direct access to the network, those few who have access are struggling to understand why their online relationships are also defined as consumer generated content, and how their life online relates to their life offline. There are no constructive tools available to individuals for building and understanding informational transactions and network presence. This is an area of research that is conducted almost exclusively by corporate interests alone. When we think of programs that are trying to provide cell phones to people in Africa, and are sponsored by a multinational corporation, we could see it as an explicit attempt by the corporation to gain early access to an untapped natural resource, which is namely a social network that has not yet been formed. The idea of Bean Torrent is important also in the sense that if all p2p network protocols could somehow be regulated or restricted at some point, the ideological principals that are built into the protocol could live on to be rebuilt at some later point in the development, and evolution of the network. The linkage between the virtual and the real is what is important to me in this work, even if the game is simple and boring. An idea that was developed out of a need that existed in a virtual space, instantiated in a real space to create new uses, and preserve the concept redundantly.

The name, Peer Abstraction Interface, is a reference to the objective of the project, which is to strip away the notion of individuality from the production of social interaction as a strategy for creating a localized microcosm that might be able to maintain a sense of agency more powerful than any individual’s within an ever-expanding network of information exchange. This project is inspired by commercial attempts at understanding a more finite level of the mechanics behind social networks, and by the factors involved with manufacturing influence within them. In most examinations of social networks, the basic unit that makes the whole is the individual, and particularly the individual in the act of consuming or producing content. Content is seen as a byproduct of the individual, and the individual is seen as a byproduct of the network. In all of this, the individual need not be informed of the active agency they may or may not have. I am hoping to develop a strategy-as-example for small groups of individuals to claim their active agency within the network without the requirement of capital or specialized interest through the use of a collective harness. I am developing a web based anonymous bulletin board system and an adaptation of the cubicle that I call We Desk 14 that will facilitate anonymous communications in real space. The reason that it is important to develop a means of collaboration with a de-emphasis on individuality is that it encourages the participants to become emotionally invested not in their avatar or online presence but in the presence of their collective microcosm. The virtual footprint of a microcosm can be many times greater than the sum of all the individual presences added together. This is proven in the need of popular web blogs to take on additional writers once their virtual presence demands more than their capacity for production. A virtual presence does not have to be made of an individual, as seen with web blogs that use multiple writers, their presence is still perceived as an individual agency to its readers 15. If there were available systems for any group of individuals to organize under a microcosm, and participate in autonomous democratic actions, I think this would be of great use for people to reconnect with the feeling of meaningful and authentic interaction because their personal input would again have a noticeable effect on a scale larger that that of the individual.

These two works are just meant to be working examples, both for demonstration of concepts, and for further experimentation. I intend to continue this project for the rest of the year and expect that the works will go through many changes before it begins to be finished.

  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DMCA and also http://mit.edu/evhippel/www/democ1.htm
  2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Design_patterns
  3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christopher_Alexander
  4. Even people without direct access to the network are represented by the network, it’s just that those people without direct access are subject to representation by other interests.
  5. http://www.turbulence.org/blog/archives/cat_social_networks.html
  6. http://www.edge.org/discourse/digital_maoism.html
  7. Most users have no control of how their online presence or generated content is used in various exchanges. see also: http://craphound.com/?p=1753
  8. http://www.jca-online.com/kaprow.html
  9. The manufacture of a present where fashion itself, from clothes to music has come to a halt, which wants to forget the past and no longer believes in the future, is achieved by the ceaseless circularity of information, always returning to the same short list of trivialities, passionately proclaimed as major discoveries.–Debord, Guy L, Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, 1988, p.8 – p.18
  10. One aspect of the disappearance of all objective historical knowledge can be seen in the way that individual reputations have become malleable and alterable at will by those who control all information: information which is gathered and also an entirely different matter, information which is broadcast. –Debord, Guy L, Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, 1988, p.8 – p.18
  11. http://www.iht.com/articles/2006/01/20/business/google.php see also: http://books.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=11516&page=1
  12. Debord, Guy L, Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, 1988, p.8 – p.18
  13. Rather than following the already-developed nations in the same course of ‘progress’, leapfrogging means that developing regions can experiment with emerging tools, models and ideas for building their societies. Leapfrogging can happen accidentally (such as when the only systems around for adoption are better than legacy systems elsewhere), situationally (such as the adoption of decentralized communication for a sprawling, rural countryside), or intentionally (such as policies promoting the installation of WiFi and free computers in poor urban areas).http://www.worldchanging.com/archives/001743.html
  14. I have developed a type of furniture that I call the We Desk that aims to facilitate the same level of abstraction that the software by using the formal elements of the cubicle but reconfiguring it’s dimensions into a wedge instead of a square the cubicle can now be arranged in a radial mass that forms the spacial requirements for social interactions that are stripped from the notion of individuality. In the front of each We Desk there is a covered mail slot and on each desk there is a typewriter. Through certain rules of interaction peers within this We Desk network pass messages through the mail slot to the other side where a messenger who also acts under certain rules of abstraction delivers the message along to another peer. In all this interaction each individual is under the charge to try to connect to the collective intellect of the group.
  15. see also: http://9rules.com/