Friday, July 25, 2014

Academic Units with Mildly Amusing Names, #7 in a very sparse series

Calming Technology Lab, Stanford

OK, calm has some value. I've been employing some calming technologies myself lately. But something about this project, especially in the context of Silicon Valley's academic division, seems slightly creepy. Frankly, as a citizen I would rather not be calmed, and I really don't want technology trying to calm me. It brings to mind Temple Grandin's work on slaughterhouses that were carefully designed to keep the cattle from being agitated as they are led down the chute.

It seems like a more proper and traditional role for academia would be to work on getting people outraged. Call me old-fashioned. And speaking of that, I notice that one of the members of this lab is Roy Pea who used to work with Roger Schank, who now runs the Education Outrage blog.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Strategies Against Architecture

In my recent posts I՚ve given the impression that I view academic critical theory as somehow lightweight, airy-fairy, and impractical, at least when measured alongside the sturdy simple souls who do engineering. Well I take it all back. You can՚t get much more pragmatic than the IDF, and they are down with this stuff in a big way, apparently:
The attack conducted by units of the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) on the city of Nablus in April 2002 was described by its commander, Brigadier-General Aviv Kokhavi, as ‘inverse geometry’, which he explained as ‘the reorganization of the urban syntax by means of a series of micro-tactical actions’....
Contemporary military theorists are now busy re-conceptualizing the urban domain. At stake are the underlying concepts, assumptions and principles that determine military strategies and tactics. The vast intellectual field that geographer Stephen Graham has called an international ‘shadow world’ of military urban research institutes and training centres that have been established to rethink military operations in cities could be understood as somewhat similar to the international matrix of élite architectural academies. …

There is a considerable overlap among the theoretical texts considered essential by military academies and architectural schools. Indeed, the reading lists of contemporary military institutions include works from around 1968 (with a special emphasis on the writings of Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari and Guy Debord), as well as more contemporary writings on urbanism, psychology, cybernetics, post-colonial and post-Structuralist theory. …
Naveh, a retired Brigadier-General, directs the Operational Theory Research Institute… ‘We are like the Jesuit Order. We attempt to teach and train soldiers to think. […] We read Christopher Alexander, can you imagine?; we read John Forester, and other architects. We are reading Gregory Bateson; we are reading Clifford Geertz. Not myself, but our soldiers, our generals are reflecting on these kinds of materials. We have established a school and developed a curriculum that trains “operational architects”.’ In a lecture Naveh showed a diagram resembling a ‘square of opposition’ that plots a set of logical relationships between certain propositions referring to military and guerrilla operations. Labelled with phrases such as ‘Difference and Repetition – The Dialectics of Structuring and Structure’, ‘Formless Rival Entities’, ‘Fractal Manoeuvre’, ‘Velocity vs. Rhythms’, ‘The Wahabi War Machine’, ‘Postmodern Anarchists’ and ‘Nomadic Terrorists’, they often reference the work of Deleuze and Guattari.… 
Indeed, as far as the military is concerned, urban warfare is the ultimate Postmodern form of conflict. Belief in a logically structured and single-track battle-plan is lost in the face of the complexity and ambiguity of the urban reality. Civilians become combatants, and combatants become civilians. Identity can be changed as quickly as gender can be feigned: the transformation of women into fighting men can occur at the speed that it takes an undercover ‘Arabized’ Israeli soldier or a camouflaged Palestinian fighter to pull a machine-gun out from under a dress.… 
Critical theory has become crucial for Naveh’s teaching and training. He explained: ‘we employ critical theory primarily in order to critique the military institution itself – its fixed and heavy conceptual foundations. Theory is important for us in order to articulate the gap between the existing paradigm and where we want to go. Without theory we could not make sense of the different events that happen around us and that would otherwise seem disconnected.… 
Naveh references such canonical elements of urban theory as the Situationist practices of dérive (a method of drifting through a city based on what the Situationists referred to as ‘psycho-geography’) and détournement (the adaptation of abandoned buildings for purposes other than those they were designed to perform). These ideas were, of course, conceived by Guy Debord and other members of the Situationist International to challenge the built hierarchy of the capitalist city and break down distinctions between private and public, inside and outside, use and function, replacing private space with a ‘borderless’ public surface. References to the work of Georges Bataille… also speak of a desire to attack architecture and to dismantle the rigid rationalism of a postwar order, to escape ‘the architectural strait-jacket’ and to liberate repressed human desires.
This is by far the weirdest thing I՚ve read recently. The whole article has a slightly unbelievable air to it, as if it was extracted from a Don Delillo or JG Ballard novel. The intrusion of a subfield of computer science that I have a tenuous connection to (swarm intelligence) adds to the unreality.

(h/t to Jordan Peacock, who has written a quite useful introduction to Deleuze and Guattari at Ribbonfarm)

[Addendum: some commenters missed the tone of the post and the cited article, which was awed but not exactly approving. And yeah, the use of radical philosophy (and even more so the work of the radically humanist Christopher Alexander) for the purposes of military occupation may be perverting it.]

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Software: Studied, World: Eaten

Well that was different. It՚s been a long time since I hung out in a real academic environment. The workshop was oriented around the organizer Warren Sack՚s book-in-progress, which is intended to connect the humanities and software in a variety of ways. The main goal was, I think, to explore and promote the idea that software is a bona fide medium of expression, which means at least (a) it is in some respects an extension of the unaided mind (b) and thus makes new forms of thinking possible, just as writing made new forms of art possible that were not available to the pre-literate, and (c) that software itself should be studied (and critiqued) as intellectual and artistic expression, just as we study and critique novels or paintings.

If this sounds too rarefied for what is usually thought of as an engineering discipline (and I admit that it does to me some of the time), the author is at least trying to ground his efforts in the works of certain famous and classic (and beyond dismissal) computer scientists, including Donald Knuth, Alan Kay, and Abelson and Sussman, all of whom were extremely technical but also accurately saw software and computation as important intellectual developments, not mere gadgetry.
The other important intellectual ground of the workshop was Marshall McLuhan and other media theorists, who emphasized the way in which media technologies have the power to reshape human thought and society.

Some secondary goals of the workshop:

(1) teasing out the non-technical intellectual roots of computational concepts, which are usually taken as givens that sprung fully-formed from the brow of Alan Turing. This is an entirely worthwhile project – somewhat more scholarly than the others – and it is one that connects to my own dissertation work. And it was the richest, newest, and best developed, in my inexpert opinion.

(2) trying to get humanists (artists, anthropologists, philosophers, etc) to understand software. Also a worthwhile project, but I wasn՚t sure the book՚s method, which consists of taking a few classic programs and attempting to step the reader through both their machinery and their intellectual background, was the best way to accomplish the goal. If I had a young arty, critique-y, politically intense young student who wanted to gain some understanding of the technological world, I՚d tell them to grab an Arduino and hang out in a hackerspace for a month and build a few things. Then they՚d have the necessary background to ask the right questions.

(3) trying to get technologists to think critically about the systems they build. This wasn՚t really a primary goal of the book, which seems to be strictly aimed at an academic market that is already open to interdisciplinary thought. But that idea is present in this community and from my outsider perspective seems to be one of the more important contributions it could make. As someone in industry, we build representations, abstraction, and systems all the time, and the ways we have for thinking about them are impoverished, we need all the help we can get.

So, combining all these goals sounds challenging; I think Warren is trying to do too many things at once. I empathize because I have the same problem when I try to write anything with more structure than a blog post – all the things I am interested in are connected and they all seem to want to be included.

A note on the workshop itself and interoperating with humanities types (cultural anthropologists, feminist studies people, etc): When I was in a 1-on-1 conversation or small circle, I had no problem at all in understanding these scholars and making myself understood. However, the larger-scale discussions seemed to devolve to a useless ritual of name dropping philosophers and flinging around trendy ideas (eg, yes, you can find racial or colonialist or militarist assumptions in software from the 60s/70s – so what? I know this, what I want to know is how to operate in the world even with all the racial and colonialist underpinnings that lie underneath it). This really grated on me; possibly it՚s because I am just not a native to this kind of discourse, but I suspect that something has gone wrong in academia. I՚m hardly the first to be unhappy with “critical theory” or whatever it is properly called, although I tend to be more sympathetic to it than your typical tech weenie (which is why I was there in the first place).

One of my right-wing trolls like to accuses academic critical theory as being symptoms of “cultural Marxism”, a program to subvert the West, but a real Marxist, if one could be found and dusted off, would scoff at this stuff because it is so goddamn inward. You can find coded racism all day long and not have any good ideas about what to do about it. And I think people in this world know it. The concepts of critical theory aren՚t that generative, and they don՚t fit naturally into the American mind. Phil Agre, my role model for this world, had the ability to digest this stuff, pull out key ideas, and express them in ways that were non-jargony and made technical sense. But he՚s not in the business any more, and I՚m not sure anybody else has really managed to move that particular ball further down the field.

Software on the other hand is eminently pragmatic: it gets stuff done. And the people who live inside it all day long tend to be gruff pragmatists themselves, without a lot of time or tolerance for the merely intellectual. This is a healthy attitude to some extent, but we are long past the point where software as a discipline has to grow up and acknowledge its connections to the rest of the human project. It is, of course, quickly infiltrating our social lives, our work lives, our political lives -- eating the world, in the celebratory/threatening tones of the industry. It hasn't yet interpenetrated very much with the world of ideas, which makes efforts like this workshop difficult, important, and exciting. We are in a revolutionary moment in history and it's eat or be eaten whether you are an anthropologist or an accountant.