Cyborgs on Edge

Since 1998 the digital magazine Edge has asked a question to a variety of accomplished people designed to contribute to discussions about issues facing humanity.  The overall project of Edge is to promote a “third culture” which  “consists of those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are.”

Edge generally poses these questions in a way open to a very wide net of interpretations and provocations.   This year’s question is:


The editors frame this overall question with the following:

Just over a month ago, in early December, Stephen Hawking warned of the potentially apocalyptic consequences of artificial intelligence, which in his opinion could eventually lead to “the end of the human species”. But really, should we fear the danger of a future army of humanoids out of control? Or rather we should celebrate the extraordinary opportunities that could give us the development of thinking machines, and even sentient beings? Do such beings along with ourselves pose new ethical dilemmas? Would they be part of our “society”? Should we grant them civil rights? Would we feel empathy for them?

While the intellectual latitude is wide, Edge editors instructs its contributors to put aside the things of a child, such as fiction and movies, and to “grow up” with some rigorous thinking about Artificial Intelligence.  The post contains responses from 182 contributors.  I’ve sampled a fair number of them but I’m sure I’ve missed more than I’ve absorbed.

So given the editorial stance, no crazy talk about cyborgs or Buddhism here.  Even Andy (“we have always been cyborgs” fame) Clark strikes a mostly reasonable tone – although he does worry at the end of his essay that while unlikely, it is possible that machine intelligence may end up eating us.

Many of the contributors focus on the key words in the question: “think” and “machine” or the elements of related concepts such as “artificial” and “intelligence”.  Not only are such approaches useful, they are necessary.  My impression this is the plane that many of the essays are the most successful.

I expect to make my way through more of the essays, and to do so with more focus and attention than the skimming I have done so far.  I expect to discuss my thoughts in future posts.  Meanwhile check it out for yourself.

The Paradox of Photography

Every photograph is an illustration of Zeno’s Paradox. By seeming to frame time with the release of the shutter, the photograph seems to frame time as infinitely divisible into moments, into halfway points between an infinitude of 2 other points. Whether starting or ending with starting or ending, the infinitude of these points prevents the possibility of starting or ending.

People have noticed something like this about photography pretty much as soon as its invention. The specificity of the moment and subject of a photograph contrasts with its potential infinitude of meaning and authorship. Even more, this aspect of photography provides a snapshot of the paradox of art in a disenchanted, rationalized age.

Expanding on this in an interesting way has been a series of posts at still searching – An Online Discourse on Photography.  The site hosts a series of bloggers, each who writes several posts over a period of time. The posts by Ekaterina Degot I found especially worthwhile.  Her posts were augmented by the comments of “co-bloggers” Casey Smallwood and Matthew Jesses Jackson.  Additionally, Prof. Degot linked to a book chapter by Boris Groys.

virtually all contemporary artists today are working FIRST as photographers and SECOND as artists. The ubiquity of the photograph as a means of basic art communication — as a painting jpeg on Contemporary Art Daily — or as performance documentation — or as film still that platforms a video — means that that artists are always “thinking photographically” as they produce their work. So, the mind is imagining the “photographic aspects” of works and in this sense we could argue that photography has accidentally became the defining medium of our time.  Matthew Jesse Jackson

'Fountain'_by_Marcel_Duchamp_(replica)[1]The art environment had already been altered by the dynamics that made Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain not only possible, but deeply influential.  The all but complete replacement of the chemo-mechanical production, reproduction and display of photography with the digital enabled these dynamics to fully flower.

What is spotlighted instead is a contemporary art that is less of an object and more of an essay, a piece of writing, a bit of a theory, presented in “research installation” form with a vast spectrum of media, where photography can be also used—but, indeed, used rather than fully acknowledged in its “autonomy.”  Eketrina Degot

Furthermore Casey Smallwood suggests that in this environment, the artist or photographer becomes less one who executes a medium and more one who curates it.

Perhaps the accumulation of contexts and content within the medium of photography along with the ubiquity of digital photography in combination with the accessibility of sophisticated software and instantaneous filters has put formerly monetary and labor-intensive techniques into even more hands than analog photography film put automatic cameras. If the conversation and celebration of technical skill was disrupted in painting with photography, then it seems – that same conversation is being disrupted now. We are less impressed with technique or the mastery of a medium, now, more than ever before. So, if technical skill is not the criterion of an artist, perhaps curation is. Casey Smallwood

In times celebrating collectivity, the communal, both mundane and cosmic, every piece of art was singular, individual. This singularity was a manifestation of the collective Invisible and its all-encompassing unitary nature.

Boris Groys explores this terrain in the book chapter Prof Degot links to:

The digital image is a visible copy of the invisible image fi le, of the invisible data. In this respect the digital image is functioning as a Byzantine icon—as a visible copy of invisible God…

In this respect, how iconoclastic religions have dealt with the image could probably help. According to these religions the Invisible shows itself in the world not through any specifi c individual image but through the whole history of its appearances and interventions. Such a history is necessarily ambiguous: It documents the individual appearances or interventions of the Invisible (biblically speaking: signs and wonders) within the topography of the visible world—but at the same time it documents them in a way that relativizes all these appearances and interventions, that avoids the trap of recognizing one specifi c image as the image of the Invisible. The Invisible remains invisible precisely by the multiplication of its visualizations. the visible. From Image to Image File—and Back: Art in the Age of Digitalization

In times of disenchanted rationality the Invisible disappears from art. It no longer adheres to the image. It is set adrift from the chromatic progression of a specific image’s history, untethered to its copies, its repeated re-enactment of form and content.

The Invisible is in fact what makes copies possible. Copies are always in some sense themselves. They do not occupy the same space as the original, they are imperfect compared to the original. Copies are possible not so much through technologies of reproduction, but through their function to stand in for the original.

As the Invisible becomes unsensed, the individual work of art looses its ability to represent the collectivity. Each work of art becomes not a representative of the Invisible but part of a searchable database.

Photography, in its current form of endless propagation, produces, more than any art form, the revealing of Being as searchable.

Every iteration of an image is neither copy nor original. Its form and history are incidental to the specificity of the display it shows up on. Nothing adheres to it other than its searchability, its findabiity.

This can appear as an opening of possibilities, its ahistoricalness a liberation from the either/or of ideologies. Or it can appear as merely another database

The Photography Paradox

About a year after my brain injury, things had improved and stabilized enough for me to consider finding something to do with myself.  We had a good, although somewhat out of date, 35mm camera.  We had gotten reasonably proficient with it years before, but had been in the closet for longer than we had used it

Over that year, I had learned the path to relative success with tasks was to break them down to their simplest parts and then to stretch their execution out over as much time as possible.

With a mechanical camera, or one at a manual setting, a photographer has 3 settings to consider:  aperture, focus and shutter speed.   The camera’s orientation is a fourth factor, although it is outside the camera’s mechanics. And of course square filmed cameras did exist.  Finally the photographer had to choose what film to use.

So I reasoned that keeping as much  of this the same as I could would free up as much of my cognitive abilities as possible for the various accidental tasks necessary.  I opted always to use a fully stopped down aperture, Kodak Gold 100 film (readily available at the time and of medium ie affordable quality) and portrait orientation.  That left me with shutter speed and focus at “the decisive moment”, and of course the ephemeral, extra-camera act of composition. (We had a couple of lenses, but at that point I used just the normal lens.)

I could have approximated the effect of all this with a point and shoot camera, but I don’t think any used 35mm film, and none of them had anything close to the lens quality I had grown used to from my previous photographic enthusiasm.

Amanita Mucaria with Slug (Atomic Geography) Easter, 1982

Amanita Mucaria with Slug (Atomic Geography)
Easter, 1982

I found the results encouraging.  My sense of composition seemed unaffected by my injury.  And while the doing of it was taxing, it felt more like growth than destruction. (A photo from the first roll of film taken in this  experiment is at right.)

Over the next 10 years or so, I slowly not only re-aquired the knowledge and skills I had in the past, but extended them considerablily. I now had multiple lenes, filters, a tripod, remote shutter release, a variety of films,  shades and reflectors and 2 camera bodies.  (My friend, George the barber gave me much of this extra equipment when he made the move to digital.)  I got a film scanner and I learned enough digital photo processessing for my needs.

The problem was that at the point of taking a picture, with my increased knowledge, too much had to occur in too short a time.  The ephemneral light of the woods with its interplay of a sun shifiting into different intensities and frequencies with the shortening  morning shadows of the trees and the randomness of clouds obscuring the sun meant there simply was no way to plan out enough to make it manageable. The decisive moment required too many decisions.

Binghamton - Johnson City Joint Sewage Treatment Plant Copies Without Originals

Binghamton – Johnson City Joint Sewage Treatment Plant
Copies Without Originals

I called my dissatisfaction with this state of affairs the photography paradox. The more I knew, the less I was able to do.  Sure I could have returned, to the enforced simplity of that first roll of film, but I had seen gay Paree (at right).

So I took fewer and fewer photos, and then stopped altogether.  This point coincided with some health problems unrelated to my injury, and family responsibilities that required most of my limited attention.  By the time these things were better enough for me to onsider returning to photography, the digital had taken over.

Gone was the local camera shop, the easy availability of film, its processing and printing.  To resume film photography would require as much re-learning, new learning and new equipment as would going digital.

Digital cameras were becoming popular while I had been photographing, but now they defined the photographic world.  The capabilities of digital cameras were impressive then, but now they are astonishing.  In short digital photography is now a substantially different medium from what is was.

As I have learned more about this I can see that my own personal photography paradox may be a metaphor for digital photography, displayed digitally, conceptualized digitally.  For me, the more I knew, the less I could execute.  Now much more of not just the knowledge but also decision-making needed to make a photograph resides in the various digital technologies involved.  The photography paradox becomes then,  the less one knows, the more one is able to execute.