Journal #7 – Big Brother is Watching You

Privacy has been an issue in politics for a while now. It’s one of those problems that can’t be easily resolved, since both sides of the spectrum have solid arguments.

Perhaps the most commonly referenced example of surveillance gone wrong is described in George Orwell’s 1984, where Big Brother watches from the TV and the Thought Police decide what you can and can’t think. It’s as chilling as it is vivid, and as each new development in surveillance technology is made, the book is endlessly referenced.

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However, the ethics of surveillance are often dependent on the reasons it is being used. Almost everyone on both sides of the spectrum would agree that security cameras installed in a bank or grocery store are meant to protect us and that they are therefore ethically sound. The surveillance described in 1984 is meant to control people; it is the government deciding what its citizens shall do and say. It’s more than encroachment–it takes away freedom. In this case, the surveillance is judged to be undoubtedly unethical.

The cases that spur controversy make up the gray area between this black and white. Google Maps “street view” supplies us with information and helps us find our way around unfamiliar areas. But some don’t appreciate the front of their house being on the Internet for everyone to view. I would argue that Google Maps is as much an invasion of privacy as a pedestrian crossing the sidewalk in front of your house. The information has always been out there for those feeling compelled to get it, Google has just made it more easily accessible.

I can’t accurately predict the future of surveillance technology. But the current trend suggests that it will continue to develop. As long as the citizenry has a voice in determining what is ethical and unethical to observe, I don’t believe we’ll be stuck in an Orwellian dystopia anytime soon.

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Journal #6: The Stanley Parable

From Digital Art:

As Eduardo Kac puts it, ‘the passage into a digital culture–with its standard interfaces that require us to pound a keyboard and sit behind a desk while staring at a screen–creates a physical trauma that amplifies the psychological shock generated by ever-faster cycles of technological invention, development, and obsolescence.’ Current interface standardization has led to an overall restraining mechanism for the human body, which is forced to conform to the computer and monitor–although these standard interfaces will probably radically change in the future. (Paul 170)

For me at least, this large block of text called to mind a game I had played recently called The Stanley Parable. Link to video walkthrough here.

Watch the first two minutes of that and you’ll get a solid notion of the game’s core concept: You are Stanley; you sit at a desk and push buttons on a keyboard according to instructions from a computer; you are happy with your job.

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Already the over-exaggeration acts as a form of commentary–Stanley is like “an extension of the machine” (Paul 170), doing its bidding in a robotic fashion that leaves no room for creativity or self-actualization.

If you watch the video further, you’ll come to realize that the work is primarily a commentary on the role of choice in video games. You, playing Stanley, are able to act in ways that contradict the narrator, whose task it is to document your story. Questions concerning the virtual self are brought into focus here: How do one’s physical and virtual selves differ in their reactions to cognitive dissonance? Is the virtual self more free to make decisions that seem contradictory, or disobey authority out of curiosity? The Stanley Parable even breaks the fourth wall, asking us what we’re doing here, interfacing with a machine.

It’s a unique game for its genre, and the questions it raises are worth considering.

 

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Journal #4: Teaching Robots

We can’t really teach robots to love until we can teach them to learn, can we?

While watching Hod Lipson’s TED talk, I couldn’t help but wonder how exactly the learning mechanism in their AI works. The showcased robot was able to test the waters and figure out how it was going to move itself across a surface, but Lipson also threw around concepts such as “natural selection” like they were programmable tools, without any reference to how these concepts were technically implemented.

The point I’m trying to make is that many artificial intelligences seem to learn in different ways.

Take Cleverbot, for example. This website allows you to enter a chat with a supposedly artificial intelligence, which will respond to your questions and even ask questions of its own. But Cleverbot’s learning mechanism is simply regurgitation. It “learns” common responses to certain inputs from the millions of people that use it, and spits them back out when prompted. Sometimes this makes for some interesting changes in direction for the conversation.

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My question is this: in what sense does Cleverbot really learn? What constitutes learning, anyway? Are Hod Lipson’s robots any better at learning? And will we ever produce robots that can learn the same way humans do?

That last one I seriously doubt, but feel free to disagree.

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Journal #4: The VFX Soldiers

Everyone’s aware of the role visual effects play in movies nowadays. What many people aren’t aware of is the actual process behind the magic.

Visual effects (VFX) work is not done by the studio; it is given to outside companies that specialize in that area of post-production. And while that sounds fine and dandy, the situation for VFX artists at the moment is far from dandy. And fine. Both of those.

One particular example brought the issue into focus last spring: Rhythm and Hues, the VFX company that brought the tiger in Life of Pi to life, went bankrupt after the release of the film, despite the success it had at the box office. A good summary of the situation can be found here.

After this news hit the public, VFX artists assembled and organizations such as VFX Solidarity International were spawned. Their mission is to identify and address the problems facing VFX artists, many of which include unstable living situations and unsatisfactory pay.

What’s causing the problems? One reason is the fixed-fee model the VFX companies follow, in which they create the visual effects for a movie at a rate that doesn’t change, even in the face of production problems–it also doesn’t change depending on the success of the movie, which is the reason Life of Pi’s success did nothing for Rhythm and Hues. Another reason is the effect of subsidies that make it cheaper for studios to film in one location and export post-production to another.

It’s definitely an issue that raises questions about the future of the industry. Will all VFX be eventually outsourced, or can we integrate VFX artists with the studio, giving them a cut of the profit when the movies they work on do well?

Still impressed?

Still impressed?

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Journal #3

“Interactivity” seems like a bit of a buzzword nowadays, especially in the age of the web and mobile device. As a culture, we’re constantly hooked up to and interacting with some kind of interface–I’m typing on a keyboard interface at the moment in order to communicate my ideas about interfaces. Wrap your head around that one.

Now back to art. Seaman and Shaw’s artworks, such as The World Generator/The Engine Desire and The Legible City go beyond the mental level of interactivity in the way that they rely on physical input and communication from the viewer/user, through some sort of interface.

The main commonality between artworks like Seaman and Shaw’s is the presence of a user interface, which isn’t required for artworks that are interactive on a mental level. I think this contributes greatly to our modern understanding of what it means for a work of art to be interactive–the artwork provides us with some sort of interface, be it a mouse and keyboard or a bicycle “allowing users to control the speed and direction of navigation” (Paul 72) used by Jeffery Shaw in The Legible City.

What seems like an exception to this is virtual reality (in its original meaning, defined on p. 125), but I would argue that virtual reality still supplies an interface–it’s just that sometimes that interface is unseen, or close enough to how we interact with reality that it doesn’t seem like we are actively interacting with it.

Oh, and by the way, virtual reality is getting better as well as cheaper; Oculus VR is working on a device called the “Oculus Rift,” a virtual reality headset affordable to consumers. It’s focused on gaming right now, but even if you’re not a gamer it’s worth checking out.

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There’s also a whole field of study devoted to interface design, which just goes to show how intertwined the interface is with our age of interactivity.

Paul, Christiane. Digital Art. London: Thames & Hudson, 2008. Print.

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Journal #2

When a work represents “reality” do you think it is ethical to alter an image to change its meaning from the work’s original context?

I think the first thing I should address here is the preconceived notion that photographs represent “reality” and are objective, unbiased records of events exactly as they transpired.

Anyone here heard of Susan Sontag’s On Photography or Regarding the Pain of Others? Sontag sums up our collective attitude towards photos wonderfully in her essays:

A photograph passes for incontrovertible proof that a given thing happened. The picture may distort; but there is always a presumption that something exists, or did exist, which is like what’s in the picture. Whatever the limitations (through amateurism) or pretensions (through artistry) of the individual photographer, a photograph — any photograph — seems to have a more innocent, and therefore more accurate, relation to visible reality than do other mimetic objects. (Sontag, link here)

But a photograph is actually just as biased as anything else. Christiane Paul describes a few ways that photographs aren’t exactly impartial: “The subjectivity of the photographer–for example, in the choice of ange, placement, and lighting–is obviously inscribed into any photographic record. And the ‘staging’ and the manipulation of photographs are as old as the history of photography itself” (Paul 36).

Rather than stick the “unethical” label to altered photographs, I believe that we need to recognize that all photographs are subjective, and that the altering of photographs is not going away. We seem to be recognizing this as programs like Photoshop become more widespread and the internet exposes us to more digitally altered pictures than ever before.

In relation to Ken-Gonzales-Day’s work, the altered image plays a different role. We as an audience are not supposed to believe that the artist is actually part of the photo–in works like Untitled #36, the digital manipulation is obvious. The piece feels more like a statement of the artist’s identity than an attempt to bring the audience into a hyperreality.

Paul, Christiane. Digital Art. London: Thames & Hudson, 2008. Print.

Sontag, Susan. On Photography. New York: Picador, 2005. Print.

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Journal #1

To start things off, I hope you’re all familiar with TED. If you aren’t, go here and watch a few videos. Then watch this:

Golan Levin: Art that looks back at you

In this TED talk, we see digital art and software engineering coming together to create some exhibits that really punch right through the fourth wall. It’s a reminder that sometimes, art isn’t just for looking. And perhaps with digital art, the interaction between artist and viewer is made even more important.

Actually, he's just making funny shapes and giggling...

An interactive study in negative space

How has digital art / new media impacted society and culture in the United States?

You know it’s a good question when the answer isn’t so simple. In my opinion, the greatest impact digital art has had is the focus of Golan Levin’s TED talk–the way it intersects with what is believed to be outside the scope of art.

Art is now at the place where disciplines cross. Artists and software engineers can work together to create exhibits like a robot that looks at you inquisitively as you walk by. Gone are the days where an artist needs to know how to use a paintbrush or practice line control. These days, art can be written in Javascript and decorated in CSS styling, punctuated with HTML tags.

It’s a big step that digital art has allowed us to take. It’s also allowed us to reflect on the way we interact with technology, having become so involved. Digital art has the power to speak to us through the devices we interact with every day, and make us question the role of these devices–are they something we need to pull ourselves away from, or improve upon and grow closer to?

The scope of art is ever-widening. And it’s pretty darn cool.

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