The Null Device
This week I was at The Conference in Malmö; here are a few of the things I learned:
- People are moving away from social media (like Facebook/Twitter) in favour of 1-to-1 messaging apps (and group apps) like WhatsApp and Slack. This is partly due to messaging being more immediate, and partly due to social concerns such as privacy and the need to be able to engage differently with different people one knows (i.e., your coworkers don't need to see your family photos). In some places, there are businesses which run entirely on messaging platforms: gyms whose only point of contact is a phone number linked to WhatsApp, and property transactions in which the legal documents include screenshots of banking app transfer screens.
- Minecraft is teaching kids a lot of useful skills, from digital logic (building machines using redstone gates) and computational/design thinking, to social skills from self-organising build teams to designing and enforcing social contracts to protect from griefers. A big part of its success is because it is not a top-down product handed down from the authorities, like, say, Scratch or Swift Playgrounds, but something the kids can do whilst out of sight of grown-ups (much like the Commodore 64 back in the day).
- There is a lot happening with generative art. The most familiar form, describing a space of potential outputs parametrically and searching the parameter space by one means or another, is common enough, and appears in settings from art installations to
web appsTwitter bots. Now, advances in neural networks and deep learning are making an impact. Style transfer (think apps like Prisma, the photo-styling app for mobile phones, but also software for cleaning up rough sketches or colourising black-and-white images) has the potential to democratise or commodify (depending on whom you ask) artistic style. Meanwhile, deep learning with multiple media can produce synaesthetic examples, like the following output of a network trained on the text of romance novels and subsequently fed an image of a sumo match:
- Smart cities, digitised to the millimetre with LIDAR, surveilled by drone, and managed by app, promise an end to the long nightmare of politics. Now a city can be run from above by impartial, objective algorithms—Plato's Philosopher King rendered in code. Everything in its right place, every space accounted for, all inhabitants managed with the efficiency of an Amazon warehouse, and all the dogs in the city are walked by drone. Until feral ravers disrupt the city's fiducial architecture (the patterned markers which guide the drones), conceal themselves from its managerial gaze with dazzle make-up and asymmetric haircuts, hijack the self-driving taxis and party in the spaces the machine does not see.
- Then again, one objective true point of view is a myth. The Jesuits found this out when, in an attempt to Christianise China, they tried to persuade the Chinese of the superiority of European-style one-point perspective over the aerial perspective used in Chinese art (which they saw as backward and inferior, for its ignorance of the point of view).
- The term “Perspective Collision” describes what happens when designed objects inadvertently reveal their designers' limited perspectives. Examples include camera film not showing dark-skinned people properly, or air conditioning in buildings being optimised for men. This is related to the Malkovich Bias, the idea that everybody uses technology the same way one does.
- Animal-free animal products are starting to appear. There now exist genetically engineered yeasts which, when fed with sugar, produce egg albumen and bovine casein, i.e., egg white and cow's milk. These are identical to the real products on a molecular level, and can be used for all the things real egg white/milk can be used for (as opposed to current animal-product substitutes, which tend to be specific to various uses). Actual animal-free meat is taking a little longer (growing more than thin layers of meat requires some form of structural scaffolding to feed the cells). This is known as cellular agriculture, and, once it matures, will work a lot like brewing: artisans/craftspeople managing a technical process.
- Stereotypical images used to represent the idea of “young people”: cartoon figures with shaggy/spiky hair and horizontally striped shirts; strobing photographs of wild-looking rock concerts.
- National Geographic, famous in popular culture for publishing photos of bare-breasted “exotic” non-Western women (something it has been doing since the 19th century), published its first photo of a bare-breasted white woman in 2016