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Rebecca Solnit · Diary: Google Invades · LRB 7 February 2013

Rebecca Solnit · Diary: Google Invades · LRB 7 February 2013
The buses roll up to San Francisco’s bus stops in the morning and evening, but they are unmarked, or nearly so, and not for the public. They have no signs or have discreet acronyms on the front windshield, and because they also have no rear doors they ingest and disgorge their passengers slowly, while the brightly lit funky orange public buses wait behind them. The luxury coach passengers ride for free and many take out their laptops and begin their work day on board; there is of course wifi. Most of them are gleaming white, with dark-tinted windows, like limousines, and some days I think of them as the spaceships on which our alien overlords have landed to rule over us. Other days I think of them as the company buses by which the coal miners get deposited at the minehead, and the work schedule involved would make a pit owner feel at home. Another friend of mine told me a story about the Apple bus from when he worked for Apple Inc. The Google Bus means so many things.

False wins and the machine zone An essay by Randall Stross in Sunday’s New York Times examines the current state of machine-gambling technology. He cites Kevin A. Harrigan, part of the Gambling Research Team at the University of Waterloo, on the phenomenon of “false wins,” payouts that are less the amount wagered, on multi-line slots. As Stross explains: In a typical multi-line slot setup, a player can bet on up to 20 different pay lines in a single game. If a player wins on 9 of the 20 lines, resulting in a net loss, the machine still celebrates the occasion with sound and video effects. Congratulations! we hear all the bells and whistles advertising and socialization into conusmerism has prepared us for, but only for a moment. I also love the Latourian wording in Stross’s description that depicts the machine as “celebrating,” as if it experiences some sort of coercive joy that the human user, fused to the machine in a cyborg assemblage, must then also experience. Why, then, does she play? Sounds terrible, right?

Origins of the Augmented Subject There’s a song on the 1997 Chemical Brothers album Dig Your Own Hole that reminds one of your authors of driving far too fast with a too-close friend through a flat summer nowhere on a teenage afternoon (windows down, volume up). It’s called “Where Do I Begin,” and the lyric that fades out repeating as digital sounds swell asks: Where do I start? Where do I begin? Where do we start, or begin–and also, where do we stop? As a thought experiment, consider the following: Your hand is a part of “you,” but what if you had a prosthetic hand? The Augmented World Credit: Shirin Rezaee Both as a dream and as a subsequently realized ambition, the Web has curiously been characterized as constituting a discrete world or reality that is somehow separate from the reality we all inhabit. Contemporary dualists love to treat the fantasy “worlds” of massive multiplayer online games such World of Warcraft as if they are microcosms of the Web as whole. Who Inhabits the Augmented World? Credit: Marco Papale 1.

Thomas Laqueur reviews ‘The Wreck of the ‘Titan’’ by Morgan Robertson, ‘Shadow of the ‘Titanic’’ by Andrew Wilson, ‘‘Titanic’ 100th Anniversary Edition’ by Stephanie Barczewski, ‘The Story of the Unsinkable ‘Titanic’’ by Michael Wilkinson and Robert Hamil Premier Exhibitions Inc. describes itself as ‘the leading provider of museum-quality exhibitions throughout the world’: Bodies lets visitors ‘see inside carefully preserved real anatomical specimens’ and Dialog in the Dark features New York in a blackout (‘and here’s the twist – your guide is visually impaired’). But Premier Exhibition’s core business is RMS Titanic Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary that has exclusive rights to salvage artefacts from the wreck that was discovered under 12,500 feet of water in 1985. The spoils can be seen by the public in ‘Titanic’: The Experience next to Disney World in Orlando or in ‘Titanic’: The Artefact Exhibition at several venues, among them the Atlantic Station in Atlanta and the Luxor Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, where it shares a bill with the comedian Carrot Top and Menopause: The Musical. Almost from the start there was an irresistible theatricality about the sinking of the world’s greatest ship. But it is an ill wind that blows no good.

It Belongs In A Museum | For Our Consideration You know, some people just don’t get art. Yesterday, a number of websites reported on a special collector’s edition of the upcoming zombie-game sequel Dead Island: Riptide. Available now for preorder in the United Kingdom and Australia, the “Zombie Bait Edition” comes with a few extras commissioned by the studio, Deep Silver. The package includes special artwork and a steel case to protect your copy of Dead Island from the elements. Oh, and there’s also a scale model of a nubile, bikini-clad woman’s dismembered corpse. That last item created something of a stir. The exhibit would start, of course, with the sculpture itself, because the longer you look at Double-D Decomposition, the more it has to offer. Flesh Husk (In Swimsuit) is all about the details. You’ll notice, too, that every part of the figure’s body is mangled except the breasts. The final touch of grace is the nationalism element. Note: Deep Silver has apologized for the promotion.

Artisinal sharing and the “Like Economy” | Marginal Utility Annex I just finished reading this paper, “The Like Economy: Social Buttons and the Data-intensive Web” by Carolin Gerlitz and Anne Helmond. The main thrust of it is to describe how Facebook, under the guise of making Internet activity more “social,” has planted Like buttons across the Internet to instigate flows of proprietary, centralized data on internet users. “The increasing presence of Facebook features on the web contributes to generating connections between websites beyond the traditional hyperlink,” generating a new standardized data form that Facebook basically controls to capture various user interactions. Gerlitz and Helmond argue that Like buttons have the “capacity to instantly metrify and intensify user affects – turning them into numbers on the Like counter – while fostering further user engagement to multiply and scale up user data.” The existence of the counters seems to compel that we use them, and this changes the affect of our interaction with what we consume online.

resistance in the materials [This is the text of an invited talk I gave at the 2013 MLA Convention, as part of Michael Bérubé's presidential forum on "Avenues of Access." The session also featured Matthew Kirschenbaum and Cathy Davidson, and was subtitled "Digital Humanities and the Future of Scholarly Communication." My slides are available here, and if you like this talk, you may also be interested in my RBMS keynote, Reality Bytes.] Most mornings, these days—especially when I’m the first to arrive at the Scholars’ Lab—I’ll start a little something printing on our Replicator. I’m a lapsed Victorianist and book historian who also trained in archaeology, before gravitating toward the most concrete aspects of digital humanities production—the design of tools and online environments that emphasize the inevitable materiality of texts, and the specific physicality of our every interaction with them. I peek in as I can, over the course of a morning. I’m generally with Morris until the final turn.

Algorithmic Rape Jokes in the Library of Babel On March 2, 2013, the KEEP CALM and DO WHATEVER meme reached peak terrible. A t-shirt company called Solid Gold Bomb was caught selling shirts with the slogan “KEEP CALM and RAPE A LOT” on them. They also sold shirts like “KEEP CALM and CHOKE HER” and “KEEP CALM and PUNCH HER”. The Internet—especially the UK Internet—exploded. How did this happen? “Algorithms!” Witness the completely fascination phenomenon of a store proprietor asking for forgiveness on the grounds that they did not know what they were selling. Although we did not in any way deliberately create the offensive t-shirts in question and it was the result of a scripted programming process that was compiled by only one member of our staff, we accept the responsibility of the error and our doing our best to correct the issues at hand. Solid Gold Bomb apology statement as quoted on ITV Amazon’s spam problems are well documented. Jorge Luis Borges’ Library of Babel twisted through the logic of SEO and commerce. “1 million dollars!

Dreams of Digital Death: Winstates and narrative limitations In 2006, the body of Joyce Carol Vincent was found in her apartment. The TV was still on and she was surrounded by unwrapped Christmas presents. She had been dead for three years. No one had noticed. This might seem like odd subject matter for a game, but in fact a game was planned around it, to coincide with the release of a documentary about Vincent entitled Dreams of a Life. Most obviously, of course, it’s heavy subject matter that touches on some of the social facts that generate tremendous anxiety and fear for a great many of us – for the same reason that Vincent’s story struck a chord for so many people when it became known. But the primary reason why the game failed is actually much simpler and more fundamental: Games aren’t (currently) structured in a way that allows for an effective story to be told about something like this, and that structure has as much amount to do with the assumptions that we bring to the medium as the objective structure of the medium itself.

Genes, Cells and Brains by Hilary Rose and Steven Rose - review We have outsourced the job of interpreting ourselves to the modern life sciences. The decoding of the human genome will tell us who we really are, pledged the gene-merchants. Brain scans will tell us who we really are, swore the neuro-hustlers. And what did we get? We got suckered. This fascinating, lucid and angry book by the sociologist Hilary Rose and the neurobiologist Steven Rose (they are married) boasts abundant targets and a lethally impressive hit ratio. The book performs in high style the necessary public service of recomplicating the simplistic hogwash hysterically blasted at us by both uncritical science reporters and celebrity scientists. Science is also political, the Roses insist throughout. "Who benefits?" Just occasionally, too, the authors' entertaining belligerence leads them to employ weapons they deny to their enemies.

Infrastructure: Commentary from Nikhil Anand, Johnathan Bach, Julia Elyachar, and Daniel Mains — Cultural Anthropology Jessica Lockrem and Adonia Lugo: Do you see an “anthropology of infrastructure” as a fruitful new area of inquiry? Nikhil Anand: Yes, I have been very excited by the proliferation of interest in the anthropology of infrastructure! As materialized articulations of imagination, ideology and social life, infrastructures- here I’m thinking particularly of electricity networks, roads, water supply systems, oil pipelines, ports and highways- provide an extremely generative site to investigate questions that have long been of interest to anthropologists such as the production and maintenance of political authority and the ways in which people imagine and ascribe meaning in their worlds. Jonathan Bach: Yes. Julia Elyachar: Social analysis of infrastructure is not new, even in anthropology, but something like a new “area of inquiry” definitely seems to be taking shape. Nikhil Anand: Infrastructure appeared in a couple of ways when I was conducting fieldwork. Julia Elyachar: Bear, Laura. 2007.

Seashell Sound Ear trumpet made from a whelk shell, date unknown. Courtesy Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library. Shell of the bright sea-waves! What is it, that we hear in thy sad moan? Is this unceasing music all thine own? Or does some spirit dwell In the deep windings of thy chambers dim, Breathing forever, in its mournful hymn, Of ocean’s anthem swell? What sounds reside in spiral seashells? In his 1915 Book of Wonders, popular science writer Rudolph Bodmer suggested that the association followed from the symbolic power of shells: “The sounds we hear when we hold a sea shell to the ear are not really the sound of the sea waves. That explanation sought to supplant superstition with science, trading sublime enchantment for fascinating fact. Why this slide from the sound science of reverberating air to the sciency-sounding flow of blood? Speaking Shells Begin with shelly speech. I send thee a shell from the ocean beach; But listen thou well, for my shell hath speech. or like the sound

Philip Ball – Microscopic worlds When the Dutch cloth merchant Antonie van Leeuwenhoek looked at a drop of pond water through his home-made microscope in the 1670s, he didn’t just see tiny ‘animals’ swimming in there. He saw a new world: too small for the eye to register yet teeming with invisible life. The implications were theological as much as they were scientific. Invisibility comes in many forms, but smallness is the most concrete. Light ignores very tiny things rather as ocean waves ignore sand grains. During the 17th century, when the microscope was invented, the discovery of such objects posed a profound problem: if we humans were God’s ultimate purpose, why would he create anything that we couldn’t see? The microworld was puzzling, but also wondrous and frightening. But Leeuwenhoek’s ‘animalcules’ and their ilk indulged their opaque, wriggly ways everywhere one looked: in moisture, air, body fluids. Pestilence was everywhere, unseen and impossible to fend off — just like medieval demons. Little has changed.

Machines of Laughter and Forgetting Fortunately, he added a charming clarification: “Human slavery is wrong, insecure and demoralizing. On mechanical slavery, on the slavery of the machine, the future of the world depends.” Wilde was not alone. On this account, technology can save us a lot of cognitive effort, for “thinking” needs to happen only once, at the design stage. The hidden truth about many attempts to “bury” technology is that they embody an amoral and unsustainable vision. Whitehead, it seems, was either wrong or extremely selective: on many important issues, civilization only destroys itself by extending the number of important operations that we can perform without thinking about them. Take privacy. This, too, is not inevitable: designed differently, our digital infrastructure could provide many more opportunities for reflection. Rather, we must distribute the thinking process equally. Does it do what normal extension cords do?