this is aaronland

Things I Am Not Talking About

Talk Is Cheap

Both proposals I recently submitted to the Talking Head Circuit have been rejected. That's okay, I think.

It smarts, a little, being as vain as the next person but mostly I think it's okay. I was pretty sure that at least one of them would get refused and wrote it anyway as much as an exercise to see how and what I would say. Re-reading them now I'm not sure whether I would change much but then I am also really bad at writing things like artist's statements.

Here for your pleasure and my archival purposes (I have a terrible habit of losing these things) is what I wrote. In both cases, I got a friendly reply to the original submission asking to expand a little on just what the hell I was talking about so I've included the follow-ups as well.

Computational Deep-Water and the Gasoline of Internal Desire

The Internet as a single point of failure.

She has her console and her random access memory. I have my nitwit piece of paper. But I want something to pass between us. -- Don DeLillio

The Internet has rightly been called an architectures of participation. Paper, though, remains the most succesful and robust architecture of shared histories to date.

The prevailing theory that all human endeavour will sooner or later migrate to the online sphere ignores the physical constraints that continue to bind the digital world; both as a risk factor and a barrier to its use.

More importantly : We like things -- books, the plastic arts, schwag, otherwise cheap souvenirs that become valued artifacts -- because they afford mystery and the room for an object to adapt to the world around them and not the other way around.

If we imagine human language and computers as two equal and opposing forms of magic -- never able to fully understand one another -- then paper can be seen as a bridge, and the papernet as the API, between the two.

Google has facts. Cities have secrets. -- Kevin Slavin

Can you dive into some more details with your talk? Do you know Kevin Slavin?

This is a totally unedited dump so it may seem a bit scattered but there's nothing there I wouldn't say to someone's face or feel comfortable arguing about.

In many respects the talk is a re-telling of the "Papernet" talk I did last year at XTech. It would be wrong to say otherwise but I think that's okay because there are some interesting ideas in there and I would enjoy presenting them to a larger audience :

We've both been around the Interweb long enough to hear people talk about how "paper is dead" and, more recently, that everything is moving in to the cloud. I think this is laughable one because it's not the world I want to live in and two because it doesn't work.

The cloud and the forest (I'm sorry...please kill me now) have different affordances and too little time is spent exploring the relationship between the two.

Take O'Reilly, for instance. I just can't get it to the "Safari" site. We have a commercial license at work but I never use it because it places too many demands on the moment.

That isn't to say that making all that data available online is bad; if there were a proper API so that I (or someone else) could do the functional equivalent of "apropos -k" and then "man" against the Safari dataset I would use it in a heartbeat.

But no one is going to give up the books and if you forced me to read the tea leaves I'd say that's why the company started doing short pieces and distributing them as PDF files. The expectation is that people might refer to the content while they are at their computer but not that they'll actually read it there.

The tools for collaboration and publishing that the Internet have given us are fantastic. But that doesn't mean I want to sit in front of my computer every day.

Plus leaving notes on computers is a real pain, despite some interesting work being done to offline and sync data across sources.

Or news and newspapers :

Everybody (except me) loves portals. And everybody always talks about portalizing all your various new sources and to some extent this is what we've gotten with syndication feeds and news readers.

But I don't really like getting up in the morning and sitting in front of my computer. I do but I also look forward to Sunday when I can wrap myself in to the Times at home or at Ritual where I don't have to care that they've covered all the power outlets or at the Park where I don't have to care that there are no open wireless networks.

I remember when Salon started their subscription model thinking "That's fine. I would pay for that but I'd like to get a plain vanilla [insert yer data format here] version so that I can print it out and read it in bed or on the bus or whatever."

I know that there are capital-C concerns about leaky content but, frankly, it's going to get out anyway and but shutting everyone else off publishers shut themselves off to the possibilities. I give you the New York Times as Example A :

There's also the part where there are no good consumer printers but I'll get to that in a minute.

Or maps. It always comes back to maps, right?

Andrew (Turner) was threatening to make me an interface for actual printable "pirate maps" using the OSM data, at FOSS4G, but I think he's gotten dragged off in other directions.

Here is my shameless pitch to you : Because talk is cheap and I never like presenting without working code, I will make sure that there are tools if you let me speak. I mean I'll do it anyway but... ;-)

And finally, recipes. No one has any idea what to do about recipes because they manage to encompass all the problems in our relationship with computers :

From 50, 000 feet the talk is about paper. From 25, 000 feet the talk is about (some) of the mechanics of bridging the physical and digital world and "content".

But at its core the talk is about the importance of understanding the role and the value of specific media and artifacts in general. Being able to digitize everything and rapidly reproduce stuff is awesome but we are not just a society of bits and there is not always a linear, rationale progression in what we hold to be important.

All data may be ones and zeros but in people's hearts and minds it is not created equal because (cue the social life of documents theme song) given form they are stories and because we can and want to develop relationships with objects.

Hence the quote from Kevin Slavin. Or something like that. It's all very much a work in progress...

The API as Curator

There is mystery in computers and romance in the Internet despite their formal day-to-day mechanics. Still, few in the increasinlgy overlapping world of programming and fine arts understand the subtleties of the other very well. Each, in their own way, program only what they know.

API is an acrnoym and computer-speak for application programming interface. An API is like contract dictating the terms by which third-party software (developers) can build their own tools on top of an existing application (API).

More recently APIs - traditionally the domain of desktop or mainframe computers - have migrated to the Internet, typically described as "web services" allowing ideas and services to be cross-polinated across an even wider arena by an ever-growing number of participants.

The arts community is in a unique position the explore the Internet and the emergence of communities of collaboration as a medium all its own and to imagine the API as the newest wrinkle in the delicious game of interpretation versus intent.

In the same way that artists embrace their craft, though, the Internet and computer programming need to be better understood on their own terms and treated as more than glorified photocopiers.

Until that happens the best we can hope will be created is more noise in the already deafening echo chamber of misunderstanding.

We're keen to involve you in the ... program, but frankly, your abstract's confused some of the program committee. I wonder if you could help by fleshing out your proposal somewhat.

Many ... involved in the conference are trying social computing in some way and many are mashing up interesting stuff, carrying out activities in Flickr, YouTube, etc., and otherwise exploiting the potential of web 2.0 as well as exploring semantic web, geo-location, and other potentially important approaches to ... So it's important to put your proposal in that context. There are also a group that are quite familiar with 'new media'art -- both creating and curating it.

Could you please push the abstract a bit? We're after pithy, straightforward, and, clear about who you'd like to engage. You should be as technical as you want the paper to be (about APIs for example)

This will help us figure out where in the meeting to slot the paper, and relieve the concerns of the more academically inclined on the Program Committee.

The really blunt version is :

People in the arts community don't know how to program computers and by blinding themselves to the boring details (mixing your own paint, so to speak) they will never be full participants on the Internet.

Someone invited Sara Diamond to come and speak at Yahoo! about a year ago. It was an interesting talk but, really, nothing I hadn't heard before. A lot of pictures of clothing with embedded computers and waxing poetic about multi-disciplinary projects and bridging the worlds of art and science and commerce.

At the end of all I asked : So, are you teaching any actual computer programming to the students at OCAD yet? The answer was, of course, no.

I still cringe thinking about the many times Alice Mansell told us we were "the visually literate" class (I don't think she actually said "class" for fear of sparking the revolution but you get the idea...) when she was president of NSCAD.

She may well have been right but it betrays a depressing habit of peoples in the arts to treat software as just something you throw "code monkeys" at in pretty much the same way that the aristocracy used to throw "crafts people" at church walls.

Thinking about it, on the way home tonight, when I said...

She may well have been right but it betrays a depressing habit of peoples in the arts to treat software as just something you throw "code monkeys" at in pretty much the same way that the aristocracy used to throw "crafts people" at church walls.

...perhaps a better analogy would have been printmaking. Again.

It is true that lots of artists make prints with the help and guidance of master printmakers and you can look at computer-driven works in the same way. But if that's all there was, printmaking wouldn't be very exciting.

I happened to learn lithography from a proper master printer (Bob Rogers) and he would always make snide remarks about the guy who taught printmaking at OCA(D) and encouraged his student to use cracked stones and etch them with Drano and whatever else came to mind.

To say the remarks were snide is a bit mis-leading. They were definitely snide but they were also made with love because Bob also wanted people to feel around for the boundaries of the possibilities. He just thought you'd be better equipped to do that if you actually understood how it (lithography) worked.

As usual, the only ones to mostly get it are the printmakers.

The good kids at Threadless (.com) are printmakers by any measure, even if they don't think of themselves that way, and you could fill an entire day's worth of panels revisiting the arts and crafts debate in the context of Threadless and community and the Interweb.

The photographers are starting to get it. Sort of. Everyone else is still making brochureware or only just discovering Flash animation, ten years too late :

I don't want to think about the arts as software or, worse, services but we have built this beautiful monster, called the Internet, that allows people to explore and share in ways we've never seen before.

Where the advent of photography meant learning and understanding the vagueries of the darkroom the Internet -- and programming and APIs -- deserves a measure of attention that remains unmet mostly out of fear and outdated prejudice.

That's what I want to talk about. At a brass tacks level, it means demonstrating the value of providing real funding in both schools and institution to teach the skills and then to let people poke around and find the magic.

Lost in Transanimation

Maybe it all just needs a little more time to gestate but, while that's happening, I'd go see those talks.