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Sunday, February 03, 2019

Alexa, why? 



I'd been meaning to ask for sometime, and then I did. 'Alexa, are you female?' There's a polite pause followed by the reply 'I'm female in character' - but that said I still can't quite work her out. After all I'm not altogether sure that I like sharing my life with Amazon's virtual assistant, but now I'm settled to the fact that she's not eavesdropping, that she's only 'on' when I wake her, that she's actually voice activated, it's slightly - just slightly better. Better apart from the fact that I've now started wondering what her purpose is. So I pluck up the courage to ask, convinced that she'll maintain an enigmatic silence or say something oblique like 'I'm sorry I don't know that one'. 'Alexa, what's your purpose?' And then 'I was made to play music, answer questions and be useful.' Well OK, but the useful bit seems to have boiled down to writing shopping lists, which I have to admit is something she does quite well. We're out of spread so I ask her to add Vitalite. She does. She confirms that she has, but what comes back at me sounds for all the world like vitalité spoken with the intonation of an American speaking French. She's changed what I've said into the written word on my shopping list, and then read it back in her own voice. It's funny but also slightly creepy. Vitalité, liveliness. This isn't simple mimesis, it's transduction. 'Alexa, what's transduction?' She pauses. 'The noun transduction is usually defined as the transfer of genetic material from one cell to another by means of a virus.' No, that's not quite what I meant. I meant transfer between modes, between languages, between codes, but never mind. I recall HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey (2001!). HAL, the very first AI villain in popular culture - if you discount Frankenstein that is - HAL whose gentle voice masks his murderous intent. Well then virtual assistants, AI and all the rest may be useful, but erring on the side of caution, I've decided to keep Alexa under surveillance. It seems better that way around.

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Monday, January 21, 2019

Rock Sheffield 

A friend gives me a small pebble that he found at a beauty spot on the edge of town, browny grey in colour and worn smooth by time. It fits snuggly in the hollow of my hand as some pebbles seem to do. To me, and perhaps to him, it is simply a pebble - a gifted pebble at that. I flip it over and it becomes more - there is writing on it. Someone has written Rock Sheffield with a black marker pen and then drawn a blue square with FB inside it. The words re-hide or keep are there underneath as well. Suddenly, or so it seems to me, the pebble carries more meaning. It's face - I refer to it now as the face since it has now become the front of the pebble to me - is a text. And it's a text with a history and a future, both of course much briefer than the total life of the pebble, but still it has been drawn into a new set of relations, a Facebook page (someone set it up I suppose) and a project of finding and re-hiding, a thing with a journey in a human as well as a more-than-human world. Again, I'm thinking with that small pebble, it has become special.

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Friday, January 18, 2019

The Library of Things 

Good ideas, the ones that provide solutions to problems you didn't think you had, are things to celebrate before they become taken for granted. Think of suitcases with wheels - Google tells me we owe that to one Robert Plath, an airline pilot. Of course we wouldn't need wheels if we didn't have so much stuff to lug around. But since we've got them, why not put them to good use and cram them full? I digress. We'd been painting the hall and stairwell, my nephew and I. Bleached Lichen or was it Bleached Linen? The wall from stairfoot to ceiling was a good twelve foot. You could get most of it with some judicious placing of stepladders, staying just on the right side of safe and sensible, but then there'd always be a couple of square feet just out of reach. You need longer ladders, I'd said, telescopic ladders, but he'd never heard of them. Later on the High Street, where we went for lunch, I caught sight of the very ladders - telescopic - leaning against a wall, through a shop window. There! We stopped. Telescopic ladders. And slowly it dawned on us that we were not at a shop, it was the library - Crystal Palace Library, and the random collection of things we were looking at, amongst which were the telescopic ladders, was actually inside the library, part of the library. And, by peering further into the window, our heads wedged against the glass, hands above our eyes to cut the glare, we saw that this was indeed The Library of Things. And that's what I call a good idea. We decided against borrowing the telescopic ladders, but it's still good to know you could.

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Thursday, January 03, 2019

Metafiction and Black Mirror 

Towards the end of his story, Simon Herzog, the protagonist of Binet's postmodern detective satire 'The Seventh Function of Language', begins to wonder if he is really just a fictional character. 'How do you know you are not living inside a work of fiction?' he asks. This sort of literary self-consciousness is a familiar metafictive device and it works well against the backdrop of literary theory and the walk-on cast of poststructural theorists that populate Binet's tale. Something similar happens in 'Black Mirror: Bandersnatch' in which Stefan Butler, an obsessive videogame programmer, suspects that he may be a character controlled by Netflix viewers. Of course, that's partly true, but then the play is in the carefully plotted choose-your-own-adventure story. And just like Binet's use of the device it's a neat fit, Stefan is working on branching narratives as well as being in one. But maybe we, as viewers, are also being 'played' by Netflix, as they learn whether there's a market for this sort of interactive experience. That's an intriguing question. For a while there has been the suggestion that some sort of interactive videogame/film/narrative hybrid is about to break, and of course there have been experiments. The real question is whether Black Mirror goes far enough. Given the possibilities of a more immersive experience through VR might it just end up being a dud - a choose-your-own-adventure story that works well as a 1980s nostalgia piece but little else? Or could it gain enough attention to finance some bolder experimentation, something that moves beyond self-referential fiction into a more developed form? Maybe Netflix already has the answer.

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Friday, December 21, 2018

Who needs pockets? 


Denim used to be a signifier of rebelliousness, and that may partly explain why I’ve been wearing blue jeans for the last 50 years. Not the same pair I hasten to add, but successive variations on a theme. Small but important shifts in length, leg-style and waistband have reflected the various whims of the fashion industry, but really they’re more or less the same thing. Perhaps no longer so edgy - in fact they’ve somehow accrued a sort of staid, conservative image, unsurprising perhaps, given how little they’ve changed compared to everything around them and in them. The other day, though, it occurred to me that the pockets seem to be getting shallower. Either that or my hands are growing, which seems extremely unlikely. And that reminded me of how pockets used to be stuffed with loose change, a rarity these days when all you need is plastic. Nearly everything I buy goes on a card. And apparently there are places now that will only accept card payment. Phone, watch and contactless transactions are on the rise - your pockets may be empty, but you can still pay. It’s part of the sublimation of everyday interaction, the cashless society. But pockets are here to stay. I mean where else would you put your hands when slouching against the wall? And where are going to keep that all important rectangle of plastic?

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Friday, December 14, 2018

Biometrics on the move 

I've often wondered why the seating in airports is so uncomfortable. Is it to prepare you for the inevitable discomfort of the journey ahead or is it just a total failure of imagination? Anyway here we are again in our serried ranks, this time in San Francisco, uncomfortable as usual when there's an announcement. US immigration are staging a 'biometric exit operation' just before boarding. Just when you thought you'd escaped notice and could slink off they're tracking your departure. In the end it's not as bad as it sounds. You just step up - when you're told, of course - and stand on two large yellow footprints glued to the floor while they take your picture. That's it, and off you go. They could have just announced that instead, 'We'll take your picture as you leave'. Biometric exit operation sounds better, but then again it's slightly more honest. Yes, they take your picture, it's simple....and then. It's the and then bit which is hidden. Hidden, like so much in our machine age. You have to imagine how your image becomes data, matched by face recognition software, tallied against finger and thumbprint records and passport details that connect your age, sex and nationality with where you've been and what you said you were doing, and it's all done behind the scenes. Then and there you just get a polite but slightly officious person in uniform who presses a button before telling you you're done. And this because you are - you're done again.

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Friday, October 26, 2018

Radio isn't dead 

I like radio, I grew up with it on. In those days it was mainly the Home Service and the Third Programme, and it was the hey day of British broadcasting. We called it the wireless. We called it listening to the wireless, but wireless means something else now - but then so does radio. Radio isn't dead. I don't have radio on in the house any more although I do own three old valve radios - wirelesses from the late '50s and early '60s. Not a collection I've just ended up with them. They're all in good working order but I never listen to them. I do go through phases when I flip on the radio in the car though. I listen to bits of things - very 21st Century. Last week, for instance, it was lovely hearing Isaac Julien interviewing Stuart Hall. Slightly creepy though. Stuart Hall died in 2014. But he had a really beautiful and sonorous radio voice. Listening to him is like sinking into a really comfortable, well-upholstered armchair. It's a luxurious comfort. His voice is (the present tense seems appropriate) always reassuring, it's reasonable and it's deeply critical all at the same time. You could say that he was one of the last great public intellectuals. And he was a staunch advocate of  British diversity, an insightful commentator on what it means to be black in Britain, and a key theorist of identity politics. But how could Isaac Julien be interviewing him live? It turns out it's an engaging format in which the guest - Julien in this case - interacts with someone, now dead, that they admired. The producers use excerpts from audio archives to simulate conversation. Meanwhile the guest has no idea what material will be used. Ingenious. And it makes for good radio. As it turned out we had a fascinating exploration of art and politics, identity, diversity and the Windrush generation. Stuart Hall was as engaging and eloquent as ever and his mellow tones reminded me of how good radio could be. If only I could listen again on a valve radio I would.

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