Porcupine Condos

Bill Viola‘s “Will There Be Condominiums in Data Space?” is one of the richest and most perplexing readings we engage in the New Media Seminar. As rhetorical questions go, “Will there be Condominiums in Data Space?” is a bit consternating, since the point of view behind it is not immediately clear. Going in, you don’t know whether Viola thinks condos (in data space or elsewhere) are a good thing or not, so it can be challenging to work through an essay that starts with an observation about the unbroken nature of individual existence and then spends quite a bit of time exploring the ways different cultural practices work to create memory systems and idea spaces that presume a kind of holism of experience and creativity. But then you get to this: “There is always a whole space, which already exists in its entirety, onto which ideas and images can be mapped, using only that portion of the space needed.” (NMR, p. 465) Ah ha! someone committed to an infinite conceptual geometry is probably not a fan of sub-divided, individually owned living spaces. Therefore condominiums are probably bad. Whew. And near the end, Viola (writing in 1982) says they would indeed be built into data space: “Today, development of self must precede development of the technology or we will go nowhere — there will be condominiums in data space (it has already begun with cable TV).” Got it. Take care of ourselves or be colonized by condos.  Nurture your networks and pull the plug on the YouTube cat memes. “Little boxes, on a hillside…..” Then, in a most un-McLuhanesque moment, Viola warns that “Applications of tools are only reflections of the users — chopsticks may be a simple eating utensil or a weapon, depending on who uses them.” (NMR, p. 469) Lots of food for thought there.

But the kicker comes in the form of a coda about a porcupine’s encounter with a car on a dark night:

Late one night while driving down a narrow mountain highway, I came across a large porcupine crossing the road up ahead. Fortunately, I spotted him in time to bring the car to a stop a short distance from where he was standing. I watched him in the bright headlights, standing motionless, petrified at this “dose encounter of the third kind.” Then, after a few silent moments, he started to do a strange thing. Staying in his place, he began to move around in a circle, emitting a raspy hissing sound, with the quills rising up off his body. He didn’t run away. I realized that this dance was actually a move of self-defense. I cut the car headlights to normal beams, but he still continued to move around even more furiously, casting weird shadows on the trees behind. Finally, to avoid giving him a heart attack, and to get home, I cut the lights completely and turned off the engine. I watched him in the dim moonlight as he stopped his dance and moved off the road. Later, while driving off, I realized that he was probably walking proudly away, gloating over how he really gave it to that big blinding noisy thing that rushed toward him out of the night I’m sure he was filled with confidence, so pleased with himself that he had won, his porcupine world-view grossly inflated as he headed home in the darkness. (NMR, pp. 469-470)

What do you do with that???? I’m sure our fearless discussion leaders will have their own ideas about the significance of the porcupine’s “grossly inflated” world view, and I look forward to hearing what the group thinks about Viola’s advocacy of matrix structures.

I find something new and invigorating in this piece every time I come back to it.  This time, I was struck by Viola’s artistic commitment to tap into the essential aspects of our humanity – the life cycle and our collective experience.  (You can check out many of his video installations on You Tube.)  I also appreciated the understated summons to think about the “why” as much as the “how” that underlies “Will there be Condominiums…?”  The first video below offers a more explicit discussion of the importance of the why.  The second complements the middle section of “Will there be Condominiums” really nicely it you still aren’t sure how data structures relate to art.  If you are already clear on that, check out the last bit (starting at about 4’15”) on the internet as a representation of human social relations and the “real” meaning (and limitations) of “code.”



New Galaxy, New Horizons

We are reading Marshall McLuhan this week for the New Media Seminar, which gives us a nice pivot to thinking about how we prepare for the future and understand the past, especially in times of great change.

One of the themes of McLuhan’s Gutenberg Galaxy is that societies on the verge of massive changes are unaware of the imminent paradigm shift. At the same time, periods of transformation often make the dynamics of the immediate past more apparent. In The Great Transformation (1944), Karl Polanyi examines the effects of the industrial revolution on the human psyche and the transformations of traditional relationships of redistribution and reciprocity into a “market society” in 18th and early 19th-century England. McLuhan leans on this analysis to develop his own argument about the mesmerizing effect of new communication technologies, insisting that their long-term significance might be inversely proportional to their perceived importance when they first appear:

“What Polanyi observes about the insentience of those involved in the expediting of the new machine industry is typical of all the local and contemporary attitudes to revolution. It is felt, at those times, that the future will be a larger or greatly improved version of the immediate past. Just before revolutions the image of the immediate past is stark and firm, perhaps because it is the only area of sense interplay free from obsessional identification with new technological form.

No more extreme instance of this delusion could be mentioned than our present image of TV as a current variation on the mechanical, movie pattern of processing experience by repetition. A few decades hence it will be easy to describe the revolution in human perception and motivation that resulted from beholding the new mosaic mesh of the TV image. Today it is futile to discuss it at all.” (New Media Reader, p. 199)

The historian in me appreciates McLuhan’s nod to historical perspective. By temperament and training historians value the analytical clarity afforded by (chronological, spatial, conceptual) distance from the events and processes we study. The familiarity of the known present brings the salient pieces of the unknown past into high relief. But anticipating the shape of things to come is another matter entirely. As we mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of the World Wide Web this month I find myself drawn to assessments of the web’s influence and the essential role it has played in shaping the present. Some late twentieth-century predictions about the digital future seem remarkably prescient, including these from MIT’s William J. Mitchell and former Grateful Dead lyricist, John Perry Barlow:

The body net will be connected to the building net, the building net to the community net, and the community net to the global net. From gesture sensors worn on our bodies to the worldwide infrastructure of communications satellites and long-distance fiber, the elements of the bitsphere will finally come together to form one densely interwoven system within which the knee bone is connected to the I-bahn. – William Mitchell, 1994

We’re going to have to look at information as though we’d never seen the stuff before … The economy of the future will be based on relationship rather than possession. It will be continuous rather than sequential. And finally, in the years to come, most human exchange will be virtual rather than physical, consisting not of stuff but the stuff of which dreams are made. Our future business will be conducted in a world made more of verbs than nouns. – John Perry Barlow, 1994

(both from: http://www.elon.edu/e-web/predictions/early90s/edgyincisivepredictions.xhtml)

Other predictions were more dire, and many of course, were just wrong. Take a few minutes to browse through the Time Capsule in Elon University’s Imagining the Internet project and you will see what I mean.

As we take stock of the Web at 25 and the internet at about 40 it is both compelling and daunting to think about where we might be headed.  One project worth investigating is Digital Life in 2025, a collaborative effort between the Pew Research Center’s Internet Project and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center. Looking at the report’s “fifteen theses about the digital future,” I was relieved that eight of them are characterized as “hopeful.” These include the promise of more democratic, open, knowledge-generating and ignorance-banishing communication between individuals tapping into an enhanced global connectivity, as well as the potential for the internet of things, artificial intelligence and big data to give people more control over their health and well-being. Also in the “hopeful” category is the potential for mobile technologies to facilitate peaceful change and political transformations. The six (much) less sanguine theses about the shape of things to come focus on the potential for “abuses and abusers” to “evolve and scale,” as well as on the intensifying efforts of governments and corporations to use the internet for political and social control.  Concerns about privacy are well-founded according to the “less-hopeful” predictions, which also caution (a la McLuhan) that many of us do not appreciate the profound changes already underway that will disrupt our basic understandings of ourselves as social, political, human animals.

The fifteenth thesis comes as advice more than prediction:”Make good choices today” the report suggests, encouraging us to imagine the different paths into the future and leverage the affordances of the internet to make sure some of the more promising ones come true.  Echoing Virginia Tech’s branded slogan, the final thesis promises: “Foresight and accurate predictions can make a difference; ‘The best way to predict the future is to invent it.’”


Being Goat

One of my favorite passages in Goat Song comes at the end of the chapter where Lizzie the doe nearly dies from an infection of meningeal worms. Lizzie’s illness evokes a passionate and compassionate response from Kessler, who is torn between his desire to save her at any cost and the anguish of seeing her suffer. He offers us a lovely meditation on the contradictions of empathy as he faces the agonizing decision to put the goat down (p. 144).  A friend reminds him that just because Lizzie was miserable did not mean that she wanted to die: “You can’t give up on an animal until it’s given up on itself. You owe them that much” (p.145).  Returning to the main component of empathy (recognizing the emotions of another being from their perspective), the friend states the obvious and the ineffable: “All she wants to do is be a goat.”

How do we, as humans, understand and empathize with other animals? Lizzie’s struggle brings issues of common experience and the nature of animal minds to the forefront.  What was she thinking?  How does a goat experience the world?  What does it mean to be a goat?  And how do people and goats — whose experience of the world is both very similar and profoundly different —  make their way through the relationships of domestication?

The conference I attended last week on The Science of Animal Thinking and Emotion offered many insights into these questions.  Some of the perspectives I found most compelling include: 1) Con Slabodchikov’s conception of a “discourse system” that sees instinct, communication, consciousness and language as interactive parts of a continuum shared by humans and animals.  Check out his very cool work, including his prairie dog studies here.  2) Ian Duncan‘s research on farm animals using preference tests. Duncan concedes that affective states are subjective — they are only known to the individual experiencing them, and therefore not open to direct scientific investigation. But we can learn about animals’ subjective states by asking them (just like people) what they want. 3) Brian Hare’s fascinating citizen science project, Dognition, which offers ordinary people (that’s us!) a chance to evaluate the cognitive profile of their dog. Do you think your dog is a good problem solver? Pretty sure he has a great long-term memory? think he’s moody? or sneaky? For $30 you can put your dog through a series of tests and find out whether he is a “renaissance dog,” a “socialite,” an “ace” or a charmer.  You’ll see what parts of his personality are uniquely his and where his universal doggy nature asserts itself.  And you’ll be helping scientists flesh out the cognitive map of the oldest domesticate. I can’t wait to try this on my own dogs!  Dr. Hare said that the results of his dog’s test really surprised him, and that many people find they’ve been “misreading” their dog all along. For the record, I’m going with “Ace in disguise” for Betty and “neurotic Einstein” for Andi.

Betty (left) and Andi (right)
Betty (left) and Andi (right)


Russia-Ukraine-Crimea: Media, Social Media and the Experts

I am sure I’m not the only Russian historian who has been asked in recent days to field media queries about the unfolding crisis in “Russia/Ukraine/Crimea” (the shorthand itself suggests the confusion and conflation of history, geography and politics), and I am pretty sure I am not the only one who has demurred. Developments in Ukraine are unfolding with a bewildering speed that compounds a devilishly complex situation. People want to know what’s going on. They want to fix it. They want reassurance that this won’t get out of hand. I have no sound-bite-insights that can satisfy those desires, and I don’t want to make things worse by adding to the confusion and controversy surrounding nearly every aspect of the crisis.

In the space of two weeks we’ve seen the ouster of Victor Yanukovich, the formation of a new government in Ukraine, Russia’s occupation of the Crimean penninsula, rising alarm over Russia’s violation of international law and its own treaties, controversy about an appropriate response, and concern that the crisis will spread to other Post-Soviet spaces.  This morning’s announcement that Crimea will hold a referendum on March 16 to leave Ukraine and join Russia suggests that the next ten days could be even more unsettling than the last.

As a historian I don’t now-cast or armchair quarterback current events. But I can guide people to sources that will help them form their own understanding of what is happening. I’ve been spending significant time each day sifting through major news outlets, Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and the blogosphere in an effort to keep up with the crisis and pass the worthwhile nuggets on to friends and colleagues. This experience has given me some perspective on the perilous and empowering ways that the media and social media of our global community shape our lived experience and the history we are making.  The shelf-life of some of these resources may be brief, so I’ll keep the following recommendations and observations short:

1)  Traditional news outlets can obscure more than clarify.

Examples:  Stephen Cohen’s controversial defense of Putin’s actions on CNN and a New York Times op-ed connecting his agenda to nineteenth and twentieth-century Russian religious philosophers on March 3.

2) The magic of the internet puts good (clear, detailed, thoughtful) analysis and background at your fingertips if you know where to look:

Examples: Charles King’s background interview on Crimea on HNN and the fine analysis of how history has shaped the current crisis in “Ukraine, Putin and the West,” published in N+1 on March 4.  There are several good posts on Sean’s Russia Blog as well.

3) Yes, Virginia, there are experts on Ukraine, and we should read what they have to say.

Examples: Ukraine Scholars of North America brings together eleven prominent social scientists working in the US and Canada. William Risch, (Georgia College) has been exceptional in his efforts to collect and collate information through the Facebook group he administers (Euromaidan News in English) and his chronicling of the Euromaiden protests.

4) As the previous two items suggest, social media are key.  They provide a window into events as they unfold, they allow for the immediate dissemination of information and ideas, they put people in touch with each other, and they shape as much as they present the story.

Other examples:

Buzzfeed of people in Crimea taking selfies with Russian soldiers.

The Twitter hashtag “Россия своих не бросает” (“Russia won’t abandon its own”) originated in Russia as a way to galvanize support for annexing Crimea but is also used by anti-Russian groups to mock that effort and deride the authenticity of the campaign.

A volatile and complicated crisis such as this defies generalizations and easy answers. But that shouldn’t be an excuse to embrace simplistic explanations, or let confusion turn to apathy.  Let’s use our collective expertise and the power of crowd-sourced intelligence and analysis to do what we can to keep this from being another Syria.  Let’s not let The Onion have the last word.

It’s all about (historical) perspective

When we start delving into the histories of particular domesticates it can be challenging to keep everything straight.  We’ve talked a lot about how domestication is a process and a relationship rather than an “event” or a given, but getting perspective on what that relationship looks like from both sides (the human and the non-human) at the same time is tricky. We need to think carefully and question our assumptions about what we think animals “do,” and what our interactions with them mean.  Last week I found this post by Patricial McConnell to be a really helpful example of how 21st century Americans misread dog behavior and affect due to our own sign systems. This week, I stumbled on this very cool story about a polar bear and a husky.  The article offers a pretty interesting explanation for a 180-degree shift in public perception of the same bear-dog interaction over the course of thirteen years. While thirteen years isn’t very long at all when compared to the much longer history of human-animal interaction, this example reminds us that perspective is relative and the context in which we observe and evaluate things is changeable and important.

DO Save the Time of the Reader/ Researcher

As a historian, I self-identify as a “super searcher.” I was trained to identify and track down whatever evidence I need, regardless of the time, effort, and tedium involved. As a researcher those skills stand me in good stead every day, but as a teacher, I want my students to spend at least as much time working with materials as they do identifying and locating them. They need to develop strategies for searching and acquire the content expertise to search intelligently, but they also need to start with “the good stuff” so that their curiosity will take over and spur them to dig deeper. For the project Brian Matthews cited in [Don’t] Save the Time of The Reader, my goal was to bring the teaching and learning of Soviet history into the networked age by using blogging and googledocs to contextualize sources available in at least three formats: print, the open web, and proprietary databases.

I’ve provided some background on the design of the course elsewhere, but the basics were as follows: Each student (38 total) had a blog that served as their digital portfolio for the semester and contributed to the content of the course. The individual blogs were syndicated to a motherblog with a magazine-style layout that included a slider and a featured post section. We curated the content from the individual posts into a “weekly edition,” highlighting the most engaging and sophisticated research in the slider or with a “red star.”

The class used a number of openly accessible collections, especially Seventeen Moments in Soviet History — a rich multi-media repository of translated primary sources for the Soviet period.  Other high quality internet sources for Soviet history include Gulag: Many Days, Many Lives —  a browseable archive of video, artifacts and film, that immerses viewers in the history of the Soviet Union’s vast system of forced labor camps; Making the History of 1989 — a digital history repository for studying the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe; and 1917: Did the War Cause a Revolution?  an interactive teaching module about the Russian Revolution based on primary sources (part of the Digital History Reader created by a team of faculty at Virginia Tech with funding from the NEH)

Students find topically coherent, multi-media repositories like Seventeen Moments appealing and user-friendly. The images and audio files are engaging, the translated primary documents are selected for their significance and interest, and the scaffolding of the web site makes it easy to dig more deeply into a particular topic or branch off on a different one.

Getting students to use (and like) the proprietary databases held by the library presents more of a challenge. Every vendor has a different search interface, the scope of the resource (i.e. The New York Times) is far broader than Soviet History, and the sophistication of the database can be daunting for the novice researcher. For this project I wanted students to take advantage of the ProQuest Historical Newspapers, and the Current Digest of the Soviet Press, (now called the Current Digest of the Russian Press) a translated monthly compilation of articles from Soviet newspapers dating back to 1949. I was pleased that once the class got the hang of finding, analyzing and citing materials from the openly accessible sites, they also found it easier and more interesting to work with the Current Digest. Providing a link directly to the search interface for these resources helped, as did using class time to work together on finding articles about particular topic.  In classic crowd-sourced style, our collective networked searching proved far more efficient and productive than our solitary forays would have been.  The student’s post became more sophisticated in terms of analysis and source base as the semester progressed.

In this context, the first step in saving time for student researchers involved helping them build proficiency with openly accessible repositories that are relatively easy to use and cite. Once the students’ interest in the subject, content expertise, and searching skills had developed, they were more willing to add the Current Digest or the Historical New York Times into the mix and invest the extra time and attention to detail these resources require.

“Saving time” like this allowed the class to use time more productively. Class-sourcing the content for an entire course required a significant investment of time and energy from all of us, but had numerous benefits, including:

1) Giving students a bigger role and larger stake in developing historical knowledge and presenting history to audiences outside the academy;  2) Bridging the conceptual and technological divide between the resources of the open web and the proprietary knowledge of commercial databases; and 3) making the walls of the classroom and the library more porous and transparent.

Expert researchers still need their super searcher skills, but we also need to acknowledge that the world is changing.  Tomorrow’s super searchers will be just as competent as we are, but they will arrive there by different means.

Remembering Alika

The posts this week about the first section of Part Wild have made me think a lot about a wolf-hybrid I lived with in the late eighties. I thought I’d share some of my impressions of life with an Inyo-like creature as part of our ongoing discussion about the distinction between tame and domestic, and the liminality of the domestic condition.

Big Sticks
Big Sticks, Frozen Pond
Leaping Shadows
Sharing the Big Stick


The photos here show Alika, who was 75% wolf and 25% husky playing with my German Shepherd, Alyosha (named after the kind brother Karamazov, but known to his friends and family as “Loshy”).  Anyone who has read Part Wild will recognize the wolfiness of Alika’s lithe, leggy frame and note how it contrasts Loshy’s burly, more softly contoured silhouette.  They were both amazing creatures, fast friends and allies.  They shared a love of big sticks, woodchucks, swimming in the pond, and doing anything the humans were doing (writing dissertations being the most common activity). And yet they were also very different, and many of Terrill’s difficulties with integrating Inyo into a domestic space rang true with my days with Alika.

Loshy was one of those incredibly perceptive dogs who never needed “training.”  He was eager to please, played outfield on an intramural softball team, worked as a therapy dog in the University of Michigan hospital, and took his duties as mascot of the girl scout camp where I lived very seriously.  He loved everyone but feared pizza boxes. He was a vigilant guardian of my person but would have watched quietly while thieves took my last possession.

Alika was different. (See Corinne’s reminder that we need to consider animals as individuals as well as representative of a species.) Her powers of perception could be extraordinary, but I would not characterize my interactions with her as “training.”  She was extremely attentive to her “pack” of humans, domestic canines, the living room couch, and a large grey cat. She was very gentle and very shy. She ate normal dog food and whatever the campers gave to her. But she could not be confined.  Like Inyo, she would destroy or thwart the most elaborate and expensive containment system out there. When we were home all was well, but if she got loose while we were gone she would run. And run, and run and run. We spent hours, sometimes days, searching for her, only to have her reappear at the camp when she thought we were home. Loshy taught her to hunt woodchucks and she taught him to chase deer. She could not fathom why the humans discouraged this activity.  Unlike Inyo, she figured out a way to live in mixed company, but the part of her that was wild – intractably, genetically, evolutionarily not domesticated – eventually undid her.  These old photos remind me of her gentle, ghostly beauty.

I could go on for quite a while, but will stop for now. Kara’s insightful queries about dogs’ “sixth sense” also reminded me that we still need to talk about cross-species communication.  So if you get a chance, have a look at Patricial McConnell’s latest post about how humans misinterpret dog affect due to our own sign stimuli.