Archive: April, 2008

Focal Point

[General] (04.30.08, 12:21 pm)

Demo Day starts in about three hours, which will bring into focus the latest bouts of craziness. Once that is over, tomorrow will be the first qual. I’m nervous (though less than otherwise expected), mostly concerned because writing has traditionally been very difficult for me. On the other hand, the practice went well, so we’ll just have to see what happens.

Qual #0

[General,Research] (04.25.08, 11:11 pm)

Calvin Ashmore
Qualifying Exam 0

Question: Discuss the relationship between media technology and cultural change with reference to a selection of new media theorists (e.g. Jenkins, Negroponte, Rheingold, Bolter and Grusin, Brown & Duguid). Is digital technology bringing about changes in our culture? If so, what changes and how?

Understanding Culture

It is not uncommon to hear about how technology and in particular digital media are changing culture and society. We hear that digital technology has the capacity to revolutionize democracy, and in the same breath we might hear of the capacity for corporations to restrict our rights and liberties. Professions of the liberating powers of social computing tend to come right alongside the ominous warnings that technology will ultimately enslave us all. Looking back, it is possible to tell that the emerging prominence of digital technology has led to a culture with different capacities and values than before, but exactly how to understand that change is less clear.

The ready availability of information has led to changes in the values and practices that surround information. While cultural institutions, many of whose deaths wereheralded by the coming prominence of digital technology,remain, these institutions have nonetheless been changed by the technology available to them. Before we can understand how culture as a whole has been affected by digital technology, we must understand how to approach culture to be able to articulate what culture is. When we understand what culture is, then we can understand its capacity for change.

Articulating culture is not an easy thing. We all live in it, and we are thus intimately familiar with it, but when struck to articulate it, we tend to be at a loss. Much like media, culture is always simply there, and it is tricky to understand exactly our relation to it. Clifford Geertz struggled to find this out and did so by relating anthropology with semiotics, revolutionizing the discipline. To Geertz, culture is a web of significance [1]. The process of understanding culture requires a kind of interpretation. Even when one exists inside of a culture, the issue of the fundamental gap of human understanding is difficult to bear. Wittgenstein wrote that we can never truly understand one another, but this perspective leads to one of irrecoverable alienation. Geertz argues that, culture is public meaning and common interpretation of relevant symbols.

With this in mind, the matter of understanding cultural change is a semiotic issue. Understanding change requires understanding how the relation of symbols changes with respect to each other. Systems of meaning might adapt and incorporate new elements, or they might become replaced by other points of signification. If semiotic systems are the means of understanding interpreting cultures, then cultural creations must be considered the artifacts and logical products of those systems. The work of art has in the past tended to take on various cultural functions, usually relating to ritual and mythic systems. Technology has necessarily aided the power of a culture to produce artifacts, and as a result the functions of those artifacts has tended to change.

The role of art within this is to represent the authority of the cultural creation. Historically, works of art have tended to represent their cultural value system. In the middle ages in Europe, art represented the authority and centrality of the soverign, but as the merchant classes began to emerge and take on cultural legitimacy, they used art to reflect their own emerging legitimacy as well.

Media and Culture

The role of media within culture serves another story.
When technology reached the level of accurate reproduction, the authority and power of the original is confused. Walter Benjamin found that mechanical reproduction could be used to change the function of art from one of authoratization to a political popularization [2]. Benjamin was fascinated by the ability for art to recast cultural values in new ways. This insight was merely a harbinger of the values of postmodernism in recasting culture. Reproductions are generally considered artifacts for consumption, consumer goods, products. It is the role of these to be distributed and widely consumed, thus reincorporating the symbolic value of the artifacts into the culture at large.

Mechanical reproduction was indeed remarkable to so many because of the perceived ability of the copy to affect the original. While the original could not be physically molested by the proliferation of reproductions, its cultural position and legitimacy could certainly be called into question. The emergence of digital technology only complicates things further. With digital artifacts, themselves being defined as long sequences of numerical data, the idea of originality and authenticity are totally lost. This is one way in which culture has been affected by media technology. But this is just one step. Media technology is certainly not only about specific works and artifacts. Media itself has become an object of considerable significance. Beginning with Marshal McLuhan, the media has become a focal point in the understanding of culture. The impact of this is especially clear with the advent of television.

Turning our attention to media specifically, at least in the sense that we relate to media, we can see that it too is highly representative of our cultural situation. However, the capacity that cultural products have to influence culture itself is greatly amplified with media, in the sense that it may be ubiquitous and pervasive. Where art and traditional artifacts may tell us the “what” of our culture, media tells us “how”. When the radio became popular in America in the 30s and 40s, culture became oriented around it. In the sense that culture is a web of significance, radio seemed to connect to all points on that web, effectively becoming its center.

While technology can affect the types of media that emerge, it would be a mistake to neglect the role that culture plays in shaping those technologies. A medium does not necessarily arise because of a demand for its content, but rather, it is shaped by various interests that have in the potential effects that a medium might have. Raymond Williams notes that the television was originally intended to be developed as a popularizing medium and a force for democracy, where individuals could broadcast themselves their perspectives on the world around them. However, it did not take a substantially long time for television to evolve into a medium with only a few heavily regulated, corporate channels [3].

Williams emphasizes to us that while culture became oriented around television, that orientation was not popular nor fully emergent, but rather it was carefully measured and controlled by the powers that be. The powers themselves were changed by television, but they were not displaced.

Digital Media Technology

A seeming effect of digital media particularly is the capacity to bypass these imposed restrictions. The discussion of television compares nicely with the recent popularity of internet video. Web sites such as YouTube purport to enable their users to take on exactly the role that Williams claims was deprived from television. Internet technology such as file sharing and other social networking seem to be able to enable dramatic cultural changes that were unfeasible or impossible before. With this technology, and with the recent trend for technology to emerge at a greatly accelerated rate, it would seem that new forms and ways of accessing and interpreting media will arise too quickly for any external forces to restrict or control their growth.

Nicholas Negroponte writes of this dramatic capacity for change in Being Digital [4]. To Negroponte, digital technology has enabled us to recontextualize the world in terms of information. When things are understood in terms of information, the physical instances of objects become obsolete and irrelevant. The transformation of atoms to bits would be total, and this transformation would serve to destroy and make unnecessary many existing institutions. Because individuals can easily access information and exert collective participation, national governments would be unnecessary, paving the way for a global culture of individuals. Furthermore, digital technology also constructs a simulated world in which children can play and develop practical skills for application later in life. The digital is a field which presents models of the world for children to learn and that they can use to solve problems, despite potentially varying approaches to learning.

Negroponte presents an amazingly futurist view of culture that would be enabled by digital technology. And in this perspective, the culture produced by Negroponte’s vision is a semantic web in whose center lies the digital medium, but whose other ties are lost or broken. In this perspective, the digital is both the universal reduction of everything (atoms to bits), but is also the tool by which other all things are understood, its goal is to reproduce the world in terms of itself. Negroponte’s digital becomes Baudrillard’s simulation [5].

While Negroponte was remarkably insightful in his prediction of technologies such as YouTube and personalized advertisements, the gradual replacement of atoms to bits does not seem to have occurred (or even be on the horizon) in its totality. On the opposite end of the spectrum from Negroponte in terms of futurist predictions, Duguid and Brown write in The Social Life of Information, that information technology failed to change the world because of its failure to account for the existing social structure. They explain that the futurist “6-D” vision of “demassification”, “decentralization”, “denationalization”, “despatialization”, “disintermediation”, “disaggregation”, which predicted change at every level of the social structure, was inherently flawed because of its failure to account for the existence of social institutions [6]. If information is seen as a cause to everything, then change in the transmission of information will create dramatic results, but it is this very premise that is on false foundation.

Duguid and Brown extend their argument further and further, explaining that cultural institutions persist because they have evolved to function effectively for reasons that are not just due to information. If they are stable because they are supported by reasons other than information, then changes to media and information technology should not be especially threatening. They note in their conclusion that one should avoid tunnel vision, but without answers as to how changes to information might change institutions, even if it does not destroy them totally [6]. It seems to imply that if any changes do occur, they will not be relevant or significant.

This argument too is unsatisfying. It is clear that the internet has enabled significant cultural change, somehow, but Duguid and Brown’s reminder of the perseverance of institutions strikes a tender nerve. Neither is satisfying, but both are fundamentally upsetting. It seems that clearly, the web of significance in culture has been changed and affected by technology, particularly digital technology, but the points in the web that anchor down the institutions that make up the political aspect of our culture have not been changed. They have, at least been budged by the semiotic ties that surround the network of meaning, and often have taken up the power of technology for their own advantage.

Remediation and Convergence

The process by which one medium takes up the practices and conventions of another is termed “remediation” by Bolter and Grusin in their book of the same name [7]. Remediation occurs when a new medium seeks to adapt the legitimacy of its predecessor, or an old medium seeks to adapt the popularity of its successors. This perspective puts media as multiple evolving disciplines, resilient, but changing. Instead of dying out, media forms change and adapt. A converse to this is the idea of media convergence as explained by Henry Jenkins in Convergence Culture [8]. Media convergence is the quality for content to be spread and consumed across media. So, instead of having there be one single mediated instance of a consumer product, that product is spread and distributed across media. This has been a classic phenomenon (Disney is notable for its use of convergence), but it has taken on whole new dimensions with digital media.

It is worth noting some of the things that make digital media so special here. Digital copies can supposedly reproduce artifacts and make them accessible as never known before. Digital technology enables immediate communication and access of information and “content” in a way that puts others and objects ready at hand. Further, it has the capacity to explicitly simulate, and render processes and procedures very rapidly. Through its universality, digital media has remediated nearly every form of media that exists, and has become the center of media convergence. If any kind of media is to converge, it will converge to the digital. Digital media has enabled new functions as a system of artifacts, as well.

The gnomon to the puzzle is to remember Geertz and reconsider culture as a text. The content of culture is a web of significance, but the medium of culture is how that significance is played out in daily life. Using the lens of remediation changes how we understand the means by which media and technology is influenced by culture, and in turn, we might find that culture has begun to remediate the digital. While culture will certainly not be replaced by the digital, it is certainly not unaffected by it. If the digital is the medium to which all other media converge, so to goes the medium of culture.


[1] Geertz, Clifford. The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays. Basic Books, 1973.
[2] Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” in Media And Cultural Studies: Keyworks. Blackwell Publishing, 2006.
[3] Williams, Raymond. “The Technology and the Society” in The New Media Reader. MIT Press, 2003.
[4] Negroponte, Nicholas. Being Digital. Random House, 1996.
[5] Baudrillard, Jean. Simulations. MIT Press, 1983.
[6] Brown, J.S. and Duguid, P. The Social Life of Information. Harvard Business School Press, 2002.
[7] Bolter, Jay and Grusin, Richard. Remediation: Understanding New Media. MIT Press, 1999.
[8] Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. NYU Press, 2006.

That’s organic!

[General,Toys] (04.25.08, 9:58 am)

So, yesterday’s experiments with Cellular Automata filled me with a curious desire to represent natural patterns and forms. I like CAs, but they usually wind up being lacking at some fundamental level in representing something that is natural. Perhaps it is because of their small granularity and pixelated nature. After all, they’re cellular. Natural forms too have cells, but pigmentation usually is much more fuzzy.

I tried to create something that took yesterday’s applet and blurred it, producing an aesthetic effect.

By the way, about the controls: The first drop down is the blur control, the second is the algorithm, the third is the number of inputs (3 means that the CA takes three cells above it as input), and the last one is the number of colors for discrete automata.

Looks like applets don’t work for you

A New Kind of Silliness

[Art,Experiments,General,Toys] (04.24.08, 7:29 pm)

I’ve been familiar with Cellular Automata for a while, and I generally tend to approve of them. Especially when they have some nice evocative qualities. We read and discussed Wolfram’s A New Kind of Science in one of my classes, which was a lot of fun. We really tore into it. My problem with the book is that while I appreciate and respect the ideas behind his work, the mathematician in me wants to wring the book until theorems come out, which of course they don’t, because there are no proofs.

I feel especially frustrated on that account because of the work I did with strange attractors. I found significant visual evidence that the parameter space for the attractors has fractal characteristics, but I was never able to prove it. Very sad.

Anyway, revisiting Wolfram led me to remember my use of cellular automata in GeneticImage, and thinking about how they could be used in Painter or other projects. I was quite pleased with the last applet posted regarding Painter, so due to this, I think I will post one with a cellular automata generator. This is primarily intended for artistic rather than any other purpose. Please fiddle with knobs and levers to your heart’s content!

Looks like applets don’t work for you


[General] (04.24.08, 10:29 am)

At long last, the storm is gone and the dust has settled. InTEL: Deployed, students are actually solving problems with it, this is a HUGE victory and step forward for the project. Mermaids: The social system is in place and functional. With some additional world building, things will be beautiful. Practice Qual: Completed, successfully. Granted, since I write at a terribly slow pace, it took twice as long as intended to actually submit it. That will become an issue for the exam upcoming, but I’ll just have to exert more discipline.

Otherwise things are mostly well. Audrey has been sick for the past week, but now seems to be recovering. All is working out in the end.

Work on UI for Painter continues with the Netbeans platform, which is encouraging and successful. The summer will call for prototypes of some research experiments. And where that winds up, who is to say.

Interesting app with Netbeans

[General] (04.20.08, 10:52 am)

I’ve been very font of Netbeans, and have just recently been getting into the wonderful world of module development. It’s fun and exciting stuff, but very complex. Netbeans modules aren’t necessarily the way for every project, but they certainly have some power behind them.

One of the applications that have been developed using the platform is blueMarine, and it has been on the Netbeans front page for a little while now. I haven’t dug into it yet, but it certainly looks nice and versatile, maybe enough so that I can make a full fledged app for Painter using it. Who knows? What is really fascinating though, is that they have published a huge design document for the whole thing! It uses UML and everything. Very swanky. There is still a lot that is missing and needs to be written, but the very thought that they would do such a thing is astounding. It shows a great attention to detail and usability, not just for end users, but for developers and designers. I haven’t looked through their source yet, but I can imagine that the design document would be hugely beneficial for doing so.

Maybe all projects ought to do something like that. Hmm….

More progress on Painter

[General,Genetic Image,Projects,Toys] (04.19.08, 12:18 am)

Because I don’t know when to quit on these things (or, possibly because working on somethings helps me relax from working on others), I made some nice progress on Painter, and rather than showing images, I figured I might embed an applet. This is very simple, and contains some primitive graphical methods, but is nonetheless quite neat and has its own sort of style.

The applet will think when you click on it, and if it thinks for too long (10 seconds) it will realize that it is confused and allow you to click again. If you are interested in this project, it is available via svn on the Painter site. The documentation on the site is abhorrent, I know.

EDIT: Due to strange technical issues, I had to take the applet down, as it was causing issues with browsers. I truly regret having to do so, but I just haven’t been able to fix it yet.

Awaiting the tests ahead

[General] (04.18.08, 5:34 pm)

It’s actually been a very very long time since I’ve taken a test of any kind. This seems rather odd, since I’ve been a student for many years now. I think the last test I took was in my last undergraduate courses, which would have been in Spring 2004. Four years is a long time in that respect. Certainly others have suffered through worse, though, so I’m not trying to claim unique or special hardship, I just think it’s unusual.

This weekend will be the practice exam, then, on May 1st, will be the real thing. I’m nervous, but not scared, so that may be a good thing or a bad thing. We’ll see what happens after the practice.

Following that, I’ll have nice stuff to report on some research thoughts. I think that simulation and proceduralization as general concepts may have a substantial value to them, especially when it comes to deconstructing something into a model and then applying that model to the schematic of a game. These processes are transformations, and are creative by nature.

I’m not sure where the question of focus can enter the picture, certainly some things may be more focused than others. I could potentially entertain a large theory while giving as supporting examples various separated ideas, but I’m not sure if that would result in a thesis so much as a strangely shaped table. Who knows?

More later.

It Lives!

[Experiments,Genetic Image,Projects] (04.16.08, 8:07 pm)

In my copious spare time, I’ve been working on Painter. Today I was able to get it to produce some sort of image. Amazing! Painter is essentially a metaprogramming project, and it generates its own programming control structures. Generally what I’m trying to do with it is put in some sort of automatic Processing. Eventually it will be able to do a lot more. But, we all must start small.

What I am doing

[General] (04.15.08, 2:04 pm)

So, just in the rare and unlikely case anyone is interested about how I am spending my time, I’ll give you all an update: Right now I am working on two major projects, and preparing for qualifying exams.

The first major project is an NSF funded endeavor called InTEL (Interactive Toolkit for Engineering Learning). The project is a significant high profile collaboration with the engineering department and my home department of LCC. It’s a pretty crazy project, we’re basically trying to proceduralize Statics and make a software program that will help students understand its core principles and use contexualized and real-world examples to help emphasize the relevance of the discipline. Right now we can do a small subset of it, but we’re planning the rest, and it is my responsibility to develop a schedule and coordinate with a new programmer for the summer work. Also, there are about a dozen bugs and things that need to be fixed before the applet is deployed to students next week!

Mermaids is an MMOG based around the principles of emergence. We’re building it with Multiverse, which is a great and powerful architecture, but still in its developmental stages. Since I’m the person on the team the most familiar with the architecture, I’m responsible for coordinating the work that everyone else is doing and getting it incorporated into the whole. We have models to convert and import, areas to build, and there is the social system and the ecosystem plugins to get working. Most of this needs to get done before next Tuesday, when one of the students is presenting his MS thesis that uses Mermaids. Also, there’s Demo Day.

I am also going to be taking my first qualifying exam and am busy covering a ton of reading to get there. The good news is that I only have about 20 texts to read or review before the exam, which is the day after Demo Day. Exciting!

Given that I’m currently wrapping up the 2nd year of the PhD program, I have a lot of people, such as my advisors, asking me, what am I going to do for this degree anyway?? So that’s been much on my mind. There’s a lot to be done there.

Also, Audrey and I are moving. So we need to find an apartment. Our deadline: Demo day.

So amidst all of this, Audrey drags me to see Explosions in the Sky, which were playing locally. It was hard to put the work down and let it go for a little bit, but it was not disappointing. Beautiful harmony and loud distorted guitar noises are awesome.

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