Art in America piece w/ Trevor Paglen

I recently spoke to Trevor Paglen – well known for works like ‘Limit Telephotography’ (2007-2012) and its images of NSA buildings and deep-sea fibreoptic cables – about surveillance, machine vision, and the changing politics of the visible / machine-readable. Full piece @ Art in America.

Much of that discussion – around the proliferation of images created by and for machines, and the exponential expansion of pathways by which surveillance, data, and capital can profitably intersect – is also taken up in my upcoming book, Technologies of Speculation (NYUP 2020). There my focus is on what happens after Snowden’s leaks – the strange symbiosis of transparency and conspiracy, the lingering unknowability of surveillance apparatuses and the terrorists they chase. It also examines the passage from the vision of the Quantified Self, where we use all these smart machines to hack ourselves and know ourselves better, to the Quantified Us/Them which plugs that data back into the circuits of surveillance capitalism.

In the piece, Paglen also discusses his recent collaboration with Kate Crawford on ImageNet Roulette, also on display at the Training Humans exhibition (Fondazione Prada Osservertario, Milan):

“Some of my work, like that in “From ‘Apple’ to ‘Anomaly,’” asks what vision algorithms see and how they abstract images. It’s an installation of about 30,000 images taken from a widely used dataset of training images called ImageNet. Labeling images is a slippery slope: there are 20,000 categories in ImageNet, 2,000 of which are of people. There’s crazy shit in there! There are “jezebel” and “criminal” categories, which are determined solely on how people look; there are plenty of racist and misogynistic tags.

If you just want to train a neural network to distinguish between apples and oranges, you feed it a giant collection of example images. Creating a taxonomy and defining the set in a way that’s intelligible to the system is often political. Apples and oranges aren’t particularly controversial, though reducing images to tags is already horrifying enough to someone like an artist: I’m thinking of René Magritte’s Ceci n’est pas une pomme (This is Not an Apple) [1964]. Gender is even more loaded. Companies are creating gender detection algorithms. Microsoft, among others, has decided that gender is binary—man and woman. This is a serious decision that has huge political implications, just like the Trump administration’s attempt to erase nonbinary people.”


Crawford & Paglen also have a longer read on training sets, Excavating AI (also source for above image).


[Conference] ICA 2014

I will be at the International Communications Association’s 2014 conference in Seattle, 22-26 May. I will stand up and talk to some people (and possibly large swathes of empty chairs) about:

From Visibility to Presence: Theorising Aesthetic-Affective Communication in Digital Space
The notion of presence conceptualises the aesthetic and affective dimensions of digital experience. It describes the phenomenally experienced quality of being-there and being-with other(s) – not merely knowing or ‘imagining’ a digital multitude, but a sense of imposing my presence on others, and equally, feeling the presence of others upon me. Presence problematises and complements visibility as a dominant, rational-technical mode in which we theorise questions of digital sociability, publicity and political participation. The concept of presence seeks to re-organise our knowledge of different lived experiences of online connections under a coherent conceptual umbrella. How are we more visible, and yet more anonymous than ever in digital space? How do the embodied aspects of visibility work in digital space – such as its ability to provoke powerful emotional responses? What does it even mean to be ‘visible’qua the body in the age of big data and predictive analysis? Presence provides a unique perspective to these enduring questions by connecting the affective-aesthetic dimension with critiques of algorithmic power.
This essay articulates presence as an aesthetic-affective lens, and demonstrates its analytical utility, through three short cases: (1) our speculative, felt senses of sufficient and probable visibility on Twitter; (2) distant and digital communication of embodied political presence, exemplified by contemporary acts of self-immolation; (3) data mining and the emergence of ‘trace-bodies’ composed of data, where the key paradox is that I know my data (self) is being exploited, but I often do not feel the presence of my own trace-body – an affective alienation.
Now You See It, Now You Don’t: On Codes, Screens, Visibility, and Erasure | Monday May 26, 9.00am | Ravenna C Room


The Other-Publics: mediated othering and the public sphere in the Dreyfus Affair

This article analyzes mediated invocations of ‘the people’ / ‘the public’ in the Dreyfus Affair, and directly orients this historical analysis towards contemporary debates on public spheres and digital media. If the ideal Habermasian public sphere never historically existed, how did the ‘imperfect’ public spheres of the past nevertheless contribute to democratic political participation? The late 19th century is a particularly salient point of comparison, being a time of transition from one set of media technologies and notions of publics to another. Focusing on newspapers, posters and other print-based communicative practices, I identify two general and consistent modes by which the ‘other-public’ is produced: (1) the ‘other’ audience as the target of persuasion, influence and commentary, and (2) the speaker as a distinct ‘other’ from the crowd. This othering was not a pathological barrier to ‘full participation’, but a constitutive part of publicity in an age of nascent mass media.

Communication History High-Density Panel | Sunday May 25, 10.30am | University Room