Saturday, March 23, 2019
Saturday, March 02, 2019
I've spent a considerable amount of time recently (with Cathy Burnett) trying to develop a credible account of meaning making from a sociomaterial perspective. That journey has taken me down some fascinating byways including cross-species communication, machinic semiosis and into the possibilities of message exchange without sentience. But however you carve it up, it seems that what we call literacy is an exclusively human accomplishment, even when we fully acknowledge the use of signs and symbols in nonhumans. Thinking of literacy like that isn't human exceptionalism - it's just the way it is, a distinction. It's helpful to think of that distinction with respect to text - the word in English derives from the Latin textilis (woven), so we might say text is that which is woven. The etymology is shared with textile (fabric or material) and indeed much has been made of this elsewhere, and part of it is no doubt connected with the historic materiality of the book. The parallels are interesting to think with. Take something like knitting, similar to writing in that it is a human accomplishment. OK, so the artistry of weaver birds is impressive, spiders make impressive webs, and so on - but they are just not the same thing. Knitting is learnt behaviour with a variety of forms and techniques - but it is just an abstract idea without the material dimension - the yarn in all its variety, colour, production and origins and the technology required to knit it together, whether simple (two or three sticks or needles) or complex (automated, machine-powered, programmed). Of course you could elaborate on the process, all the different steps required in making a garment, for instance, but that is the basic process. The garment is, of course, analogous to the text, that which is woven. A garment is a more or less durable product designed to fulfil a particular purpose, and from the point of completion has what amounts to a life of its own. It can be moved across space and time, given, sold, lent, re-purposed or destroyed. It can be cut, copied, shrunk or lost. It assembles, reassembles and disassembles. It is dependent on an entangled process and on complex mechanisms of transmission and exchange - and in this sense is just like text. Thinking like this suggests that the semiotic domain of the social should not be purified and distilled for the purpose of study. Texts are mutable objects in heterogeneous assemblages with human, nonhuman and non-semiotic objects, they emerge out of these entanglements affect them and are affected by them.
Sunday, February 03, 2019
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.
Monday, January 21, 2019
Friday, January 18, 2019
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.
Thursday, January 03, 2019
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.
Friday, December 21, 2018
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?