Author Archives: Lisa Hirschfield

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.

“Eye in the sky” (and on the streets)

I had already been making efforts to look for surveillance cameras and speed cameras at intersections and in the subway, cell towers, dishes, analog TV antennae, and various mystery boxes on telephone poles. Until Verizon convinced me to switch from copper to FIOS a couple of years ago (very grudgingly, and only after resisting for years and then deploying the “executive carpet bomb” complaint technique on Verizon officials – it works, btw) it was in my personal interest to be informed about POTS service in the city,  and in particular the contents of two green-gray junction boxes on my street. After the switch, I began to look more carefully at where FIOS cables in the area were coming and going.

But Networks of New York—and this course in general—has made me much more observant of the wireless and wired infrastructural environment, both in the city and in the countryside, where cables and lines are easier to notice (I also keep an eye out for lightning rods on old barns). This morning on the bus I began to pick out a number of wireless surveillance devices that Burrington includes in her field guide: the flat square antennae that enable street and traffic surveillance cameras to talk to each other; microwave antennae; and some unremarkable-looking antennae bolted to streetlamps that didn’t seem to be connected to any other device. So apparently Myrtle Avenue is abuzz with data exchange at all times. But it’s a conversation that none of us can eavesdrop on—at least, not without the right tools.

What seemed before to be a basic, rather linear setup of cameras and transmitters at intersections now feels like a  cloud of surveillance that I move through, at all times, except maybe (I hope) when I am inside my apartment sleeping. Still, it’s easy to tune out because it’s not very visible and doesn’t interfere with my daily activities. A quarter mile away, however, that’s not the case. For the past couple of years, portable towers with floodlights and cameras set up on the grounds of a large NYCHA complex by the NYPD make their presence very well-known at night. Generators emit a continuous rumble and the light undoubtedly intrudes into the rooms of surrounding apartments. The towers were put there presumably because the area had experienced some persistent low-level crime—and occasionally, shootings. But they seem to have substituted the limited one-way communication capacity of machines for any human presence, whether of police or security guards, or anyone who could connect with the community, and facilitate interpersonal networks.

Now, it’s reasonable to assume that many residents would gladly trade the intrusion of the light towers for a safer environment. But sometimes when I pass these towers I try to imagine what it’s like to live every day under the eye of normalized police surveillance: the visibility is surely as much, or more, of a deterrent as the lights and cameras themselves. (And yet, by now these familiar structures might as well be permanent neighborhood fixtures.) I also try to imagine what it’s like to live in an environment where personal safety is often at risk—that’s also an intrusion. And, I think about the difference between subjecting people to pervasive but low-visibility surveillance versus that which is localized but meant to be noticed and to encourage certain behaviors in response. Is one mode more insidious overall? Does one have more potential to erode public trust in legal and municipal institutions?


I was checking out manhole covers on my way to work and noticed one abbreviation (“DWS”) that I later searched for online. Here’s a handy Wikipedia page on manhole cover abbreviations in NYC, and some of them link to pages about the companies or public works divisions they refer to. But some covers only indicate which ironworks made them.

Two of them are rather intriguing:

  • BPB = Borough President Brooklyn
  • BPM = Borough President Manhattan

Would these be leading to dedicated ducts for the respective BP’s offices? And if so, are they   access points for internet, cable, or something else? Vacuum tubes? Escape tunnels?

The Wiki page includes links to a couple of other useful sites – including Forgotten New York (an excellent source for all kinds of info on old NYC infrastructure, streets, buildings, and their vestigial traces.)

There’s also this website, with great photos.


The Medium is the Massacre


Our class discussion today — in particular the implications of placing organic life and inorganic objects on the same plane of ethical consideration, the Internet of Things (and “smart houses”), and whether or not human-programmed artificially intelligent objects can have any kind of agency independent of human activity — made me think of the 1977 sci-fi horror film Demon Seed.

Next week Anthology Film Archives is presenting this film as part of a short series “of filmic and televisual terrors that surveys the way horror filmmakers and artists have exploited various media to mine the ruptures created by technological advances in production, transmission, reception, and communication through the media of film, television, video games, and the internet.”

I noticed that a rather pessimistic quotation from Alfred North Whitehead is included on the series webpage: “The major advances in civilization are processes that all but wreck the societies in which they occur” (epigraph to Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium is the Massage). Demon Seed would certainly bear out that sentiment, but Whitehead’s less doom-laden thoughts about the world as “webs of interrelated processes” have heavily influenced Jane Bennett and Jennifer Gabrys (and most likely other folks we’ve read). In their writing, respectively, on interactive, “agentic”  assemblages of organic and inorganic matter, and the way connectedness and environments might mutually constitute or “program” each other (and the ways all of these things “program” human experience of environments), they have explicitly drawn on Whitehead’s “approach to ‘experience’ as something that is embodied across human and more-than-human subjects” (Gabrys, “Sensing an Experimental Forest: Processing Environments and Distributing Relations,” Computational Culture. September 2012). As I understand it, this notion of embodiment — whether it operates at an atomic level; or as a network of electronic sensors; or in and through animal, vegetable, or mineral matter — is also the basis for their ecologies of connectivity.

If you haven’t seen the film and you need to blow off some mental steam before the election, I recommend Demon Seed, especially in light of what we’ve been reading in the past couple of weeks.  Just keep in mind that as an audience member you will be compelled to reenact its 90+ minutes of creepily pan-optical, clinical surveillance of Julie Christie (i.e. voyeurism, with some unremarkable 1970s horror-flick misogyny thrown in for good measure). Good times!


Talk to Me

It might be ancient history for some of you but MOMA had an excellent exhibition called “Talk To Me”  in the summer and fall of 2011, which focused on “objects that involve a direct interaction, such as interfaces, information systems, visualization design, and communication devices, and on projects that establish an emotional, sensual, or intellectual connection with their users”.  Whether or not you saw the show in 2011, I encourage you to check it out on the MOMA website (where it’s been recreated in web format, along with most of the exhibits MOMA has mounted since the 30s).  In your copious free time, of course. (As if I don’t have a lot more reading to do… .)

The show was incredibly wide-ranging — everything from a plastic mouth-expanding “communication prosthesis”  to Metrocard machines — but a majority of the objects involved some form or use of mechanical or digital technology. While I was starting the first chapter of Program Earth I thought of one piece in particular: a tree listening  station at which passersby in Kew Gardens (London, not Queens) could listen to the inside of a tree (it was recreated in the gallery with a recording, video, and headphones).

It was great to discover that the whole show is accessible online now — I am seeing things that I either missed or was too overwhelmed by sensory input and crowds to take in on the two occasions I went to see it.  Here’s one example of something I missed in person, which brings The Peripheral to mind in more ways than one.


Rhizome as Topography

In our discussion of rhizomes and rhizomatic properties, I was reminded of a book by Daniel Spoerri, An Anecdoted Topography of Chance (1962, 1966). Spoerri, a participant in the Fluxus movement, embarks upon a literary experiment in which he catalogues everything that happens to be lying on a blue table in Room 13 of the Hotel Carcassone at 24 Rue Mouffetard in Paris, where he was staying. It’s a “topography based on chance and the disorder that I snared on October 17, 1961 at 3:47 p.m.” (xv-xvi). The book’s front endpaper and inside jacket include a rudimentary hand-drawn map,  which delineates the shape of each object. “Each outlined object is numbered, and the game I suggest is to choose a shape on the map and look up the corresponding numbered paragraph in the text” (xvi). The anecdotes consist of a history of the object and how it came into the author’s possession or vicinity. Many of these anecdotes spin off into other contexts that can only be related to the objects via associations Spoerri makes in his memory or imagination.

The publisher’s statement warns that the Table of Contents cannot be used as a key to the map. In other words, the reader must use the map to find her way around the text, or invent her own game for reading (xiii). The publisher also announces that supplements to the original (English) text will be issued “at irrregular intervals” and invites readers not only to subscribe, but to “send in contributions to these supplements in the form of further annotations and comments on the one hundred and one articles in this text…particularly…relating to the IV, V, XI, and XIX arrondisements of Paris, in which much of the action in this book takes place.” Thus, the reader will become a participant in sketching out a spatially- and temporally-layered topography based on his own knowledge, associations, and experiences.

Emmet Williams, translator of the English edition, has also included his own annotations and “anecdotations” of the text, which pose questions about the objects Spoerri describes, refer to his own tangential experiences loosely related to the objects, or comment on Spoerri himself. Spoerri adds additional notes to his anecdotes as well. The book is a playful illustration of what something like Deleuze & Guattari’s connected rhizomatic dimensions might look like, as much as it would be possible to capture such things in the printed word.

One of the more straightforward, contained entries, on page 28:

No. 14
Package of Twining’s Chinese Tea
which I bought for a change
of aroma, although I still
have some Orange Pekoe left.
I wanted smoked tea and
they sold me this package
pretending it was, which it

On page 79, Spoerri extends the conceptual territory of this anecdote (and includes a cross-reference):

(f) Two candle butts
one of which was squeezed
near the wick when the wax
was still warm. I remember
neither their use nor their
origin, but since I often blow
out fuses by plugging on all
kinds of apparatuses and art
objects, there is nothing as-
tonishing about their pres-
ence in my room. In the crypt
at Vezelay, the candles the
pilgrims light in honor of the
VIRGIN plop down onto a
sheet of iron where the wax
makes a very lovely picture,
as HAINS pointed out to me
on our trip to Nice (No. 31).