Monthly Archives: November 2016

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Thoughts for Next Week

As we approach the end of the semester, I wanted to thank all seminar participants for such a generative and lively semester. It has been wonderful to explore issues of the cloud, and cloud-based infrastructure with you!

For next week, please be prepared to discuss not only your final projects, but also the following two questions:

1. To what degree are social networks viable in an age of surveillance capital? To what degree can we separate the affordances of social networks — feeds, friends, interfaces — from the proprietary systems (Twitter, Facebook) that we have come to know? Are free software solutions any better, or are the part of (or at least related to) the problems we’ve identified in recent weeks?

2. What does an “infrastructural perspective” look like? How can it be applied? To what degree can it be employed like other critical lenses to shed light on various phenomena, and what kinds of actions, networks, and agencies does it reveal?

Looking forward to seeing you next week for our final class of the semester.

I Share Therefore I Am

Here is a TED Talk from Sherry Turkle, whom Prof. Gold brought up by the end of the class. She is a Professor of Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT.

In her research, she explores the ways we are connected with each other and our relationships with technology. She analyzes how we turn to technology to engage with our communities in ways we can comfortably control—even though we might not actually be “comfortable” with it—and also how we get from connectivity to isolation at a more introspective level. At one point, she goes on to say that “I am still excited by technology, but I believe, and I am here to make the case, that we are letting it take us places that we do not want to go”.

The Laborer as Automaton

Arkwright's Cotton Mills by Night, 1782 - Joseph Wright of Derby

Arkwright’s Cotton Mills by Night, 1782 – Joseph Wright of Derby

When I was a research assistant for Professor Allan P. Isaac at Rutgers University, I once transcribed an interview between him and a Filipino call center agent who described how work at a call center in the Philippines for American companies fractured the structure of their days and nights.  At night in the call center, they were expected to work tirelessly and meet a 300 second average handling time for each call, knowing that any missteps could lead to their termination and replacement.  Their lives at home during the day were also impacted by the change in sleep routine and their families had to live around their schedule, moving quietly around their homes and interacting minimally.

Above is Arkwright’s Cotton Mills by Night by Joseph Wright of Derby, described at the beginning of chapter three in Jonathan Crary’s 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep.  The author describes the “reconceptualization of the relation between work and time” and the normalization of continuous labor that is made possible through advances in technology throughout the century and across the globe (Crary 62).  I found his use of Marx’s observation that the “first requirement of capitalism… was the dissolution of the relation to the earth” a familiar process in Professor Isaac’s research on call centers and the “disconnection from family, community, environment” due to the organization of labor a familiar sacrifice for both OFWs and the call center agent who must navigate global time and national time (Crary 63).

Tweeting Jacob’s Room

After much ado, I was finally able to get a twitterbot up and running. I created a bot @somemodernist that tweets out lines from Virginia Woolf’s novel, Jacob’s Room (1922), whenever I run the module. I chose Jacob’s Room because Woolf wrote the novel with space breaks — that is, she divides the narrative with blank spaces into “scenes” or little sketches. I’ve done work on this novel before (I actually created a prototype for an online edition of the novel for my MA project), and I’m always really inspired by how the digital medium engages with Woolf’s work, in this case, with the fragmentary structure of her narrative and her use of blank spaces.

To make this bot, I used the tutorial from  the “Build a Bot” workshop developed by Terian Koscik. Though I still had difficulty getting the bot up and running, the workshop was extremely helpful for my goal, which was to get a bot to tweet lines in succession from a text file.

That being said, working on this bot actually gave me an idea for something more interesting (unfortunately, @somemodernist isn’t quite as robust as I want it to be, the lines don’t tweet neatly and it won’t run without my prompting). In the near future, maybe over the break, I’m going to make another bot for Woolf’s novel The Waves. For those who are unfamiliar with this novel, the narrative runs through the stream-of-conscious of six different characters, and their thoughts at times share the same phrases and images. For that reason, there’s an interesting literature on Woolf’s creation of a shared consciousness, if any of you guys are interested.  In making this bot, I’m going to get more deeply into Python (which is something I’ve been meaning to do, now I have an excuse!). My goal is to run a script that finds patterns of words or phrases throughout the novel and tweets them in succession, regardless of the speaker. The tweets will then facilitate more study on the shared language of the six characters in the novel.

I found some resources that will help with this kind of text analysis in Python. First there’s the Natural Language Processing with Python (NLTK) Book, which is an online book that teaches beginners how to do text analysis in Python. Then there’s the pattern.en module, which allows for more advanced syntactic searches and analysis, and finally there’s the TextBlob module, which is like a more beginner-friendly library of scripts for processing text.

Remixing Code, Resisting Control

For the past several weeks, I’ve been thinking about computer code and language as a means of control. For Alexander Galloway, code is a type of protocol, or a way of imposing control in communication. In Protocol, Galloway describes code as a language (yet to be officially recognized as such) that requires adherence to its standards in order to work. For Kenneth Goldsmith, code offers an opportunity to be creative. In Uncreative Writing, Goldsmith talks about remixing different kinds of “code,” such as the code from an image file with lines of poetry, to create a new image. I’m wondering how we can bring what Galloway says about control and restraint in code into conversation with Goldsmith’s presentation of creative uses of code.

Galloway shows how power structures, such as DNS and ISP, are instituted through code, which must conform to a certain standard in order to successfully communicate. For Galloway, resistance to this kind of control consists of finding loopholes or “exploits” in systems (what hackers do). But Goldsmith shows how resistance to standards can take a different route, how it can actually defy the requirements of protocol, by splicing the standard code with other kinds of code, or languages. This remixing is creative because it combines two different codes (such as poetry and computer code) to create something new.

On page 24 in Uncreative Writing. Goldsmith performs an experiment with an image of William Shakespeare. His experiment takes the textual code from the image and splices it with the text from a Shakespearean sonnet. The resulting .jpg file renders a jumbled image. I performed the same experiment with a picture of my family’s thanksgiving table. Here, I took the code from a .jpg file and spliced it with text (in this case, with an argument that my family had at the table when the picture was taken). The result looks like this:

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The image shows two things: first, how the code doesn’t work, and second, how this failure nonetheless results in an image that is read and rendered by the computer. In this case, the remixing of code is both corruptive and creative. It shows that mixing different kinds of languages, such as English and computer code, successfully resists standards.

I realize that Galloway’s project is ultimately about communication, while Goldsmith’s is about creating something new from old materials. But it seems to me that we can see the two in the same light, as a resistance to the control of language through experimentation. Do you think this experiment changes how we view protocol? Is mixing different kinds of code analogous to Galloway’s “exploit”, or is it something else?

A Dearth of Dissidents

My bot – “Rhyme and Punishment” (@Crimeaandpun – political pun intended) and the hashtag is #Dissident –  posts verse from dissident poets every 15 minutes. What is currently operating is a very imperfect and incomplete version of what I’d like to do.* My hope was to create a bot that, in addition to tweeting poetry, would retweet and also respond to other people’s tweets that included trigger words and/or the same hashtag. But I had so many technical difficulties getting this project up that I scaled back that idea and cheated by signing my account up for a free service that re-tweets posts that have a common hashtag (#Dissident). I picked this hashtag because I assumed it would be fairly common these days. I chose poetry in translation by a Russian writer from the early 20th C, Marina Tsvetaeva (who was anti-Bolshevik), two contemporary Syrian poets, Amira Abul Husn and Housam Al-Mosilli, and a Chinese poet, Liu Xia (who is married to dissident Liu Xiaobo).  The  face of Rhyme and Punishment is Vladimir Putin. It all seems a bit pretentious, I know, but I wanted to see what it would look like if I threw together writers who are or were persecuted by their respective governments for their politics with a contemporary political figure who has a reputation for doing just that, and who is widely condemned by most advocates of democracy (with the exception of our president-elect).

The other thing I did was have my bot follow a few organizations and media outlets that are popular with some of the more Right-leaning and/or Trumpian contingent on Twitter: the CIA, the FBI, Homeland Security, Ann Coulter, several Tea Party groups, the Daily Caller, Breitbart News, and even the Grand Old Party, which seems relatively benign among these others. Most of these are entities are what I would personally consider on the “despotic” end of the ideological spectrum, and I wanted to see how many followers Rhyme and Punishment could attract from this pool of Twitterers. So far, four – all of which I am sure are bot-driven themselves, in order to attract more followers. (If they were individuals they would probably notice that R&P is not their political cup of tea.) So you could say that R&P is baiting a certain Twitter demographic as an adjunct to this experiment – what affinities trigger which followers?

Keeping a search open for all tweets with the hashtag #Dissident, as well as account names that include the word Dissident, yields surprising results. In the past three days, my bot has tweeted more of its own material with the hashtag than any other account on Twitter. I did not expect that. The poetry includes the hashtag at the end of every sentence, not every line, in order to create some discontinuity in the results of such a search. I reset my tweets 15 minutes apart so that other #Dissident tweets would be more frequently interspersed. But even reset 30 or 45+ minutes apart, there has been no significant increase. Why is this such an unpopular hashtag at a time like this? It’s interesting, nevertheless, to see what else is tweeted, and from which countries. Some of the tweets are ads. Most of the others are not from the U.S. I wonder, of course, if anyone has done a similar search and discovered Vladimir’s tweets, but so far no one has responded. I would say that this experiment has yielded very mixed results. Then again, I didn’t approach it with any assumptions about what would happen.

* I struggled with a very long time on my own — too long — to get a Twitterbot script to work before I was able to sit down with a Digital Fellow (fortunately, bot-expert Patrick Smyth) and get some help. (Greg had also offered some suggestions via email, but I didn’t have any luck.) Even with Patrick’s help, I spent hours afterward working on it.  I won’t lie – the whole process has been extremely frustrating, not to mention distressingly time-consuming given everything else I have going on in my life. However, creating Twitterbots with more sophisticated functions is something that I’d like to continue doing from time to time, once I can master the coding.

A Sample-est Critique of My Own Twitterbot

In my earlier post, I began to reflect on the ethical, political, and theoretical limitations of the cloud text project I designed. By way of summary, I offer the following: my twitterbot retweets slightly altered tweets from the #NotNormal stream, so as to amplify a broad range of political messages associated with Anti-Trump sentiment and resistance. In my initial post, I expressed concerns about the ways in which my bot promulgated and perpetuated unvetted news links, thereby contributing to a larger problematic grounded in uncritical reading and reflection.

Sample’s criteria for bots of conviction provides an additional framework for critique; specifically, he offers the following framework by which bots can function politically and effectively:

  • Topical.  According to this criteria, bot should not be about lost love or existential anguish; they should focus on the morning news — and the daily horrors that fail to make it into the news. My bot, though  initially topical (I constructed its database from tweets collected over the course of two days), but since then the news cycle has moved on. Ideally, I would have a mechanism for continually scraping the twitter feeds to update my supporting database.
  • Data-based. Here Sample articulates the importance of actual data and research. Mine transmits memes and other forms of predigested research, but does not reach back to the supporting data in responsible ways.
  • Cumulative. In Sample’s words, “it is the nature of bots to do the same thing over and over again, with only slight variation. Repetition with a difference.” The aggregation of these repetitions conveys rhetorical and political weight. In this sense, my twitterbot functions well – it highlights the repetitive nature of reductive political sentiment; it assaults one with the only slightly iterative nature of revision in twitter-based discourse, etc. Though I intended it to function in service of progressive politics, what manifests is an implicit critique of political discourse.
  • Oppositional. My bot takes a stand, which Samples argues is an important element of automatized protest, but that stand is a catch-all aggregate of sometimes only ancillary stands – the #notnormal hashtag can be instrumentalized in a wide variety of political projects, and for that reason my bot’s stand can be at times incoherent. (I even had to delete two references to blonde tips that somehow appeared).
  • Uncanny. If, for Sample, bots should help reveal things that were previously hidden, then my bot fails entirely to satisfy this criteria; the tweets it produces have already been tweeted (and, in many cases, already retweeted). Instead of revealing the hidden, my bot exaggerates existing visibility.

I present this exercise, not as a means of self-castigation, but as a way of more rigorously reflecting on what seemed to be a clever project. And this has me rethinking my bot’s potential for revision and ongoing deployment.

Cloud Text Experiment: @MakamisaBot

Twitterbot: @MakamisaBot

I decided to try my hand at building and experimenting with a Twitterbot on a dedicated Twitter handle since I had completed Patrick Smyth’s API workshop once before.

I had intended to use @MakamisaBot as a tool for broadcasting news or reactions from Filipinos and Filipino Americans during the Duterte presidency, a timely experiment considering what happened last week (http://www.rappler.com/newsbreak/iq/151667-timeline-ferdinand-marcos-burial-controversy). I had done a preliminary scrape on Twitter using Patrick’s script for #MarcosBurial, but didn’t try to retweet anything:

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I worried about participating in a discussion where a language barrier could pose a problem since tweets would be a mix of English and Tagalog.  I will probably continue to tinker with this idea if it could be of some use, creative or otherwise. I’ve instead started using the tutorial below on making a Twitterbot with Python to play around with @MakamisaBot and text files from Project Gutenberg.

Make a Twitter Bot in Python: Iterative Code Examples

Makamisa (meaning “after mass”) is believed to be Jose Rizal’s third, unfinished novel. Jose Rizal is considered a national hero in the Philippines – his literary work at the end of Spanish occupation in the late 1800s influenced Filipino resistance and he was ultimately executed by firing squad for his writings on December 30, 1896. Rizal’s novels were originally written in Spanish, then translated to Tagalog and English. They are part of the public domain and I chopped them up to use for my project. Makamisa’s manuscript ends abruptly with: “Although it was rumored that aunt Anday received slaps on her face, they still do not [have]” (translated in English). If I could get the script to work, I’d be interested in producing similarly unfinished sentences using available text from his preceding novels, Noli Me Tángere and El Filibusterismo.

Krisetya and Starosielski: Undersea Cables as Narrative Landscape

Last week’s trip to DataGryd with Andrew Blum reaffirmed for me how very small we are in the networks we’ve built to connect each other and control our environments.  I was interested in learning more about Markus Krisetya and his work after reading about his cartographic designs in the chapters we read from Blum’s Tubes.  Krisetya has a Tumblr page with some of his work, including a Submarine Cable Map from 2014:

http://mkrisetya.tumblr.com/post/84823497084/submarine-cable-map-protectors-of-the-internet

An updated one from 2016 from TeleGeography can be found here:

http://submarine-cable-map-2016.telegeography.com/

The updated map is a little more interactive – you can scroll left and right, zoom in and out to read short reports on changes to the cable network since the map’s previous publication.  I enjoyed Blum’s description of Krisetya’s cartographic work as a form of storytelling (“I loved drawing stories on paper, and referencing distance in that strange manner,” [Krisetya] told me) (Blum 15).

I focus on TeleGeography’s maps because they provide us with physical representations of our media infrastructures, something I’ve been searching for as I collect and study materials for my final paper on colonial infrastructures in the Philippines.  In Nicole Starosielski’s The Undersea Network, I noticed that the Philippines only features as a sort of stepping stone in the undersea cable networks despite the existence of miles of telegraph networks connecting islands to each other and across the Pacific in the early 1900s.  There has to be a story behind this as well.  I recently found a map from 1902 online that could be useful provided by Brown University Library’s Digital Production Services illustrating these telegraph cables from that time published in National Geographic Magazine:

http://library.brown.edu/dps/curio/the-world-wide-telegraph/