The Whole Is Greater Than the Part (Part 4)

Euclid Ave Pawn Shop © Mark Wolfe used with permission Mark Wolf Documentary Photography

Euclid Ave Pawn Shop © Mark Wolfe used with permission
Mark Wolfe Documentary Photography

While a fine-grained focus characterizes much of Code/Space, the final chapter  takes, at points, a panoramic vision.  The accumulation of the specifics of coded applications becomes Everyware.

Everyware is the notion that computational power will soon be distributed and available at any point on the planet…With everyware, life unfolds enveloped within software-enabled environments.   216 Taken together, it is envisioned that these various forms of everyware will generate “ambient intelligence” — objects and spaces that are sensitive and responsive to presence of people or other coded objects. 221

K&D analyze this using cost/ benefit binaries such as surveillance vs empowerment.  This enables them throughout the book to present codeness as a tool that we can use in either positive and negatives ways. This is different from the approach I outline in my Findable Cyborg posts Part 1 and Part 3 and imply in posting the DARPA video in Part 2.  These posts discuss pervasively rationalized environments in the context of the technological understanding of being.  Up to this final part of Code/Space, K&D deemphasize this kind of analysis preferring a mostly functional approach. While they do idenify code’s role in extending the negative aspects of neo-liberal capitalism, there is nothing up to this point like R Scott Bakker’s view:

Modern technological society constitutes a vast, species-wide attempt to become more mechanical, more efficiently integrated in nested levels of superordinate machinery. (You could say that the tyrant attempts to impose from without, capitalism kindles from within.) The Blind Mechanic II: Reza Negarestani and the Labour of Ghosts R. Scott Bakker

Yet something like this sentiment is there, in less explicit form.

Everyware promises new opportunities to monitor, link, and make sense of the interactions, transactions, and mobilities of people, goods and information at a spatial and temporal resolution previously impossible…to create a fine-grained net of automated management. 228

This anxiety becomes more explicit in their discussion of life-logging.  These practices take typical practices of human self monitoring beyond augmentation by coded devices to a pervasive and ubiquitous part of living.

The aim of life-log developers is to provide a record of the past that includes every action, every event, every conversation and every material expression of an individual’s life. 230

The combination of pervasive automated management and life-logging  “has the potential to create a society that never forgets…a detailed spatialization of the history of everything, everywhere.” K&D propose a solution that is both elegant and impossible, the converging of parallel lines of thought on the curved surface of code/space.

One path…is to construct an ethics of forgetting in relation to pervasive computing….[T]echnologies that “store and manage a lifetime’s worth of everything” should always be complimented by forgetting…So rather than focus on the prescriptive [ethics], we envision necessary processes of forgetting…that should be built into code, ensuring a sufficient degree of imperfection, loss and error. 253

Pervasive computing relentlessly increases the signal to noise, seeking to eliminate noise altogether.  Forgetting is purposely generating noise to reconstitute the human in the face of the totalizing machine.  Yet the machines must also be the agents of this forgetting, accepting as they become more and more powerful, “imperfection, loss and error.” Animal perception functions by filling in the gaps of its always incomplete sensory information.  That is why the expression, “The whole is greater than the sum its parts” makes any sense.  The perceived whole is always greater the parts we can perceive. Machine perception has the potential to vastly reduce the unperceived, unprocessed parts.  In such a situation though, the idea of the whole itself becomes  dispensable replaced by a stream of amorphous parts defined by their temporary function. Perhaps there would be hope for K&D’s strategy of forgetting if humans could first provide an example of accepting “imperfection, loss and error”.  It remains though a measure of the predicament we find ourselves in, and this alone recommends Code/Space.

See Also: The Whole Is Greater Than the Part (Part 1)
The Whole Is Greater Than the Part (Part 2)
The Whole Is Greater Than the Part (Part 3)

The Whole Is Greater Than the Part (Part 3)

Historical Morse Codes (Wikipedia)

The next section of Kitichin & Dodge’s Code/Space I want to consider begins with chapter 5, Automated Management.  I will use “govern” for any kind of management structure, both private and public.

Put simply, automated management is the regulation of people and objects through processes that are automated (technologically enacted), automatic (the technology performs the regulation without prompting of direction), and autonomous (regulation, discipline, and outcomes are enacted without human oversight) in nature…On the one hand, software is being used to create more effective systems of surveillance and, on the other, to create capture systems that actively reshape behavior by altering the performance of the task.  Automated management thus works in a different way compared to other modes of governmentality, creating a situation where “code is law”.

K&D discuss how of all this is largely invisible to causal, and to some extent, focused scrutiny.  It’s business as usual to the governed.

Those who govern, on the other hand, design highly formal (and consequential) rules they can modify at any time with no new visibility.  Governance is therefore able to entice “people to desire [the systems of control] and willingly and voluntarily participate in their ideology and practice (rather than simply disciplining them into docile bodies)”. (90)

The capture and recording of people data is increasingly the default,  excessive to the immediate task, embedded in “dumb” technologies, and shifting from intermittent to continuous, mobile and networked.

This is mostly acceptable to most people.  K&D write, “It is quite difficult to argue that one wants to be less safe, less secure, less competitive, less productive of less empowered.”  At the same time, these data practices are largely invisible to individuals who are therefore unable to choose whether or not to participate. The use of such data may harm both individuals  and society.

For many, this leads to an instinctive wariness of such practices, while also feeling  powerless to do anything about it.  K&D note that such a situation “raises  serious ethical concerns and political questions of equity pertaining to the development and widespread role of surveillance systems that have the ability to capture details about people’s lives in great detail.”

At the same time it is clear that code can contribute to creativity and empowerment for its users.

Our aim is to illustrate how software often works as a progressive force for personal and social change and to counter some of the more doom laden commentaries, as detailed in the previous chapter, which casts the work that software does in an almost universally negative light. (112)

K&D then consider examples in the arts (music and photography), academics, social media, mapping and political organization and engagement.  They point to the tension between code’s ability to enable new possibilities for creative and political purposes while also enabling “greater state scrutiny and corporate monitoring”.

In the three following chapters, K&D consider in detail the construction of code/space in air travel, the home and the consumption of goods.  Through these examples they concretize how code transmutes space and illustrate the positives and negatives of coded environments.  These detailed and nuanced discussions are well worth the reading.  For my purposes here, I will only point to them.  As I mentioned previously, K&D’s website  links to their papers leading up to Code/Space including those corresponding to these chapters.

I plan one more installment of this series/review to discuss their conclusions and how they propose to resolve the tension between code’s benefits and dangers.

See also:
The Whole Is Greater Than the Part (Part 1)
The Whole is Greater Than The Part (Part 2)

 

Spring Night (After Wang Wei, After Robert Okaji)

Wang_Shimin-After_Wang_Wei's_Snow_Over_Rivers_and_Mountains[1]Yesterday, I got a “like” from the poet Robert Okaji for my post Cyborg Sky Burial.   Taking the link back to him, I found a blog including both his poems and his discussion of his sources and process. In his post Spring Night (After Wang Wei) he describes some of what he considered going from a transliteration of Wang Wei’s poem to his own version.

First, the transliteration from chinese-poems.com:

Person idle osmanthus flower fall
Night quiet spring hill empty
Moon out startle hill birds
Constant call spring ravine in

Mr Okaji lives in Texas, and a species of osmanthus, the devilwood, grows there.  So in his version he specifies that.  Here’s his version:

Spring Night (after Wang Wei)

Among falling devilwood blossoms, I lie
on an empty hill this calm spring night.
The moon lunges above the hill, scaring the birds,
but they’re never quiet in this spring canyon.

I found this all very interesting and offered a tweak to his version.  This prompted me to try my own hand at the exercise.  Not knowing anything about Wang Wei, I first looked him up on Wikipedia.

Wang Wei is especially known as a poet and painter of nature. Of his poems some four hundred survive: these were first collected and originally edited into a corpus by his next-youngest brother, Wang Jin, by imperial command. Of his paintings, no authenticated specimens survive, although there is evidence of his work through influences on later paintings and descriptive accounts of his paintings.

So the painting featured in this post is not one by Wang Wei, but by Wang Shimin titled After Wang Wei’s Snow Over Rivers and Mountains.

I also read in the article that Wang chose his courtesy name as a reference to Vimalakirti of the eponymous Vimalakirti Sutra, who discusses Emptiness with the bodhisattva Manjushri in the presence of numerous arhats and bodhisattvas.  The article states this discussion “then culminates with the wordless teaching of silence”.

This seemed apt in terms of my posts about Emptiness (Sunyata).  So in my version I try to reflect this.

Here in upstate NY no osmanthi grow but the lilac does.  It’s in the same family (Oleaceae ie olive family) and like osmanthus, is known for its strong fragrance.  So in my version osmanthus/devilwood becomes lilac.

Another issue Mr Okaji  identifies is whether to use the collective “birds” or specify a kind of bird.  As I noted to him, I generally prefer the specific, but the poem is so tight that the sound of the bird’s name becomes important, and possibly distracting.

All of this reminded me of a poem I previously posted.

Mind Only Poem #1

anesthetized tree
raucous pilgrim birds
naked dawning sky

So this is my version:

Spring Night (after Wang Wei, After Robert Okaji)

Who sits among the falling lilacs?
Night. No one on this springtime hill.
The moon all-at-once agitates the crows.
In springtime they never stop cawing in the ravine.

Buddha/Space

Code has provided the informational matrix for space in my recent code/space posts.  While I still have a lot of ground to cover there, I thought it would be interesting to approach the question of space from the matrix of a Buddha.

In Buddhist literature, the Matrix-Of-The-One-Gone-Thus is frequently intertwined with space.  I touched on this in a  previous post discussing Buddhist space. As with just about everything, different flavors of Buddhism treat space in somewhat different ways.  As I have in my previous Buddhist posts, I will be mainly talking about the Gelugpa school’s interpretation.

The Verse Summary of the Perfection of Wisdom is one of the oldest of the Perfection of Wisdom sutras.  In this passage, one who has in effect, directly perceived Emptiness, sees the dharma (in this context, sees the way things are) as if she were seeing space itself.

The One-Gone-Thus teaches that one who does not see forms,
Does not see feelings, does not see discriminations,
Does not see intentions, does not see
Consciousness, mind, or sentience sees the dharma.
Analyze how space is seen as in the expression
By sentient beings in words, “Space is seen.”
The One-Gone-Thus teaches that seeing the dharma is also like that.
The seeing cannot be expressed by another example.

Verse Summary of the Perfection of Wisdom translated by Jeffrey Hopkins in Final Exposition of Wisdom works by  Tsong-Ka-Pa edited and translated by Hopkins

Emptiness is a non-affirming negation.  It establishes the inherently existing self as the object to be negated, but does not explicitly affirm anything in its place.

This approach negates inherent existence without inadvertently positing some kind of essential entity, or ground of existence.  Extending this, space then becomes a metaphor for the Mind perceiving Emptiness.  In Emptiness Yoga, Jeffrey Hopkins writes “space [is] the non-affirming negative that is the mere elimination of any obstructive tangibility”. (371)

Common usage certainly includes this alternate sense of “space”.  We could reformulate “I need my space” as “I am experiencing you as an obstruction to my optimal functioning.  Get lost.”  Buddha/space takes this non-obstructiveness as the defining characteristic of space, not as an intellectual exercise, but rather as the felt experience of the way things are.

If the mind that has voidness as its object thinks intellectually, “This is ‘noninherent existence.’ I have found ‘noninherent existence.’ This absence that is the nullification of what is to be refuted is ‘voidness,’” this is referred to as “setting voidness out at a distance.” This will not do. The mind that has voidness properly as its object is a decisive piercing of the mere nullification itself. In other words, with the understanding, from the depths of our heart, that things do not exist at all like they appeared a while back, the mind taking voidness as its object completely pierces the sphere of this mere nullification like a spear piercing a target. A mind that does that is totally absorbed on voidness which is like space.

H. H. the Dalai Lama and Berzin, Alexander. The Gelug/Kagyü Tradition of Mahamudra.   Online excerpt.

This lack of obstacles, space, becomes a metaphor for the spacious awareness that encounters no obstacles in its efforts to bring all sentient beings to enlightenment which is itself, spacious awareness.

See also The Whole Is Greater Than the Part (Part 1)

The Whole Is Grater Than the Part (Part 2)

The Whole is Greater Than The Part (Part 2)

9780262525916[1]Continuing my consideration of Kitchin & Dodge’s Code/Space I want to focus on their treatment  of code.  They describe how the scale and scope of code’s ability to process information makes a qualitative change from previous human tool bearing.

 In common with  earlier technological enhancement like mechanical tools or electrically powered motor, software enjoys all the usual machine-over man advantages in terms of speed of operation, repeatability and accuracy of operations over extended durations, cost efficiencies and ability to be replicated.  Software thus quantitatively extends the processing capabilities of electromechanical technologies, but importantly it also qualitatively differs in its capacity to handle complex scenarios (evaluating capta, judging operations), taking variable actions, and having a degree of adaptability…. Software can also deal with feedback, or being able to adjust future conduct on the basis of past performance.  Code/Space (39) Kitchin & Dodge

Code then  possesses a degree of agency, the ability to “shape to varying degrees how people live their lives”.  This agency is relational.  It arises both from its interactions with objects and humans, and from its ability to adapt to evolving conditions to form a “technological unconscious”.

This relational sense of instrumentality combined with a vision of space itself produced by social relations and material practices creates code/space.  Each element is necessary for its functioning.

When code and space are both present, but not intertwined the result is coded space.  Here code provides an augmentation to the space’s functioning.  The space retains its functionality (less efficiently perhaps) even if its coded objects stop coded operation.

Most homes in the developed world are coded spaces to some degree, but they still function as dwellings even if a coded coffee maker and all other coded objects in it fail.  An airport is a code/space.  “[Its] various coded infrastructures and process entangle and fold together to form a vast coded assemblage that defines the practices and experiences of air travel.”

Code/space then might be thought of in terms of the converging parallel lines I discussed in Part 1 of this series.  The development of coded infrastructure and practices have achieved an informational mass, a gravity, that curves the space in which it occurs.  This has enabled the lines of code and space to converge and interact as code/space.

This informational mass, K&D argue, result from a variety of “discursive regimes”, each underpinning a particular coded application.  Such regimes include “safety, security, efficiency, antifraud, empowerment, productivity, reliability, flexibility, economic rationality, and competitive advantage.”

In the book, K&D discuss code interacting with all of these discourses  in a variety of ways.  In following posts I hope to sketch out at least some of them.

The Whole Is Greater Than the Part (Part 1)

One of Euclid’s “Five Common Notions” forming the basis of his geometry is “The whole is greater than the part”.  Euclid sought to develop his account of space based on ideas he could not prove, but seemed so obvious that no proof was needed.  Indeed, a study published by the National Academy of Sciences about an Amazonian tribe suggested that geometric reasoning is innate.

Well almost.  Euclid’s Fifth Postulate, asserts in effect that parallel lines don’t intersect.  (Actually it describes how non-parallel lines do so.)   Euclid’s contemporaries were suspicious of this idea and our Amazonian friends understood more frequently than Westerners that this is not true on curved surfaces.  And of course, spactime does not conform to Euclid’s description which is functional only in local areas where curving spacetime, intense gravitational fields or the curvature of, say, a planet does not come into play.

Why am I writing about this?

I recently finished reading Code/Space by geographers Rob Kitchin and Martin Dodge (MIT Press) which discusses how applied software transduces space. (Their website links to many of their papers leading up to their book and some of the quotes I use will be from these rather than from the book.) This prompted me to meditate on space in general.  Euclid seemed a good place to start.

K&D discuss how Euclidian geometry represents space as mere container of objects and processes.  They write:

This absolute ontology of space is essentialist  in formulation. It effectively reduces space to  its geometric essence and depicts that essence as natural  and given.

Recently, this viewpoint has been challenged by relational  ontologies that understand space as being constituted  and given meaning through human endeavor.  Within these relational ontologies, space is not a given,  neutral, and passive geometry but rather is produced  through social relations. Space, it is posited, is not essential  or objective in nature, but produced: ‘‘constituted  through social relations and material social practices’’   Code and the Transduction of Space  Dodge, Kitchin

They note that this allows one to think of space either as metaphor or container, social or apart from the social, outside of time or fundamentally temporal, always in a state of becoming.  Reformulating this a bit, we can think of each set of these binaries as parallel lines, as local functionalities that apparently never intersect but in fact do.  I find this an interesting way to think about binaries in general. Nature/culture; body/mind; subject/object each as a set of lines seemingly never meeting in a local, functional context, but that inevitably do.

Anyway, D&K explore the way coded objects and process (ie technicity) transduce space.  In general, a transducer converts one form of energy into another.  So as I understand it, D&K discuss how technicity converts one form of space into another.

From this perspective, society, space and time are co-constitutive - processes that are at once social, special and temporal in nature produce diverse spatialities.  Software matters because it alters the conditions through which society, space and time, and thus spatiality, are produced. Code/Space

I hope in subsequent posts to further explore the ideas in this book.

Cyborg Sky Burial

Two years ago I wrote briefly about the Tibetan funerary custom of sky burial.  Now, the vultures again circle my neighborhood, swooping within a few feet of my bedroom window before taking their perches in the Norway pines next door.

So I wonder, what hybrid  being can take their place for the Buddhist cyborg? What chimera  has the appetite not only for blood and tissue and organs, but plastic, wire, silicon and rare earth metals?

How can we collect the cyborg’s data, dispersed in sky obscuring clouds, and place it in the cyborg charnel ground with our animal bodies?

Machik Labdron developed the Buddhist practices of Chod in the 11th Century.  Chod is a set of Vajrayana practices that use the visualization of one’s own death, dismemberment, and the feeding of the parts to demons.  Chod is then, the spiritual equivalent to watching one’s own sky burial.  The point of the exercise was explained by Jamon Kautrul in the 19th Century:

It [Chod] is a radical method for cutting through the inflation of ego-fixation through the willingness to accept what is undesirable, the disregard of difficult circumstances, the realization that gods and demons are one’s own mind, and the understanding that oneself and others are utterly equal.

Jamon Kontrol quoted in the Introduction to  Machic’s Complete Understanding translated and edited by Sarah Harding

Machik combined shamanic practices prevalent at the time with Buddhism.  What cyborg practices do we combine with Buddhism now to give us the opportunity to develop the radical compassion Machik sought to teach us?