Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Pedagogics of Mathematics according to V. Bush

Digital Humanities debates have been enthusiastically -- and for a good reason -- addressing the technologically enhanced research and education situations. Such debates have been asking the question 'what happens when we are able to rethink (I am tempted to say "deterritorialize") our institutional and personal habits when it comes down to processing knowledge'. As such, this is not very new. The long histories of optical technologies as part of the academic and teaching processes are known, and similarly we should look at more recent histories of computing in this light. Indeed, what is curiously often missing is an acknowledgement of cybernetics as a mode of thinking across the disciplinary boundaries. Naturally not without its problems whether pinpointed in terms of the ethics of research (the certain control-based mode of understanding knowledge/systems) or institutional affiliations (military ties for instance), cybernetics however was able to build such islands of crosstalk between disciplines that are now being hailed as new with computational methods in humanities. Other people are pretty much on the ball on this one when it comes down to elaborating the debates - see for instance Ian Bogost's recent writings - and I have been more interested in thinking what is left on the outskirts of the debates; for instance media theory, or more specifically media archaeological approaches.

Whether media archaeology is part of "Digital Humanities" is another question; but at least it can provide further insights into ways of thinking computationally. A good example is the work of Vannevar Bush - well known especially for his Memex-device which surely features in some Digital Humanities self-reflections - and his differential analyzer. Besides being a tool for solving, well, differential calculations obviously, it ties interestingly as part of histories of not only computation but also data visualisation. Bush was occupied with the "integraph" calculating instrument already in the 1920s, for integrating functions, where the method of drawing graphical curves was an essential part of the process (of course, dealing with analog computing). (See Mindell's Between Human and Machine, p.153-154).

Already Mindell flags the idea that we are dealing here, very concretely, with a graphical user interface, but also the wider interest Bush had in graphical notation. For Bush, such modes of calculation+graphics was a way to think in terms of diagrams, and learn mathematics through the mechanical aid. As such, for Bush it was part of a wider pedagogic way of thinking: mathematics could be taught in such machinic assemblages. Such realizations from the 1930s and 1940s serve as good reminders of the various early ideas in terms of methodologies for enhanced learning - and environments of technical learning. We need to keep both eyes open - one for the technical side, the other for the graphic/aesthetic side that often becomes more understandable through methodologies known from visual culture studies -- but also media archaeology.

In other ways too, Mindell's book mentioned above is a great source. It shows the work of pre-cybernetics as a significant platform for signal based technical media cultures. Furthermore, it is able to introduce many forgotten ideas and contexts. One such fascinating one that contributes to a further visual media+computation-link is Gordon Brown's 1938 dissertation on the "cinema integraph" that continued the work in combining graphical methods with mathematics of integration. Again, part of the histories of analog computing, but something that in a fascinating way highlights the reliance on other media materials of its time. In short, Brown's innovation (suggested by N. Wiener) was to continue the work in using photocells for tracking and analyzing curves necessary for the calculation - but enhancing this with the transparency of the film material so as to be able to increase the speed of the operation: "Norbert Wiener, who advised the Bush laboratory on calculating machines suggested a way to speed up calculation by lightening the load, literally, on the mechanisms. Plot images of functions on film, Wiener suggested, shine light through the film and electronically integrate the light passing through it with a photocell." (Mindell, 2002, 164). This idea that never picked up really was however a good example of the various intermedial relations in those earlier cultures of innovation -- already completely "multi-media".

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Robida's imaginary futures

In the midst of final edits and polishing the manuscript of What is Media Archaeology?, I am going sorting out the images for the book. One contender to feature in the chapter on Imaginary Media is Albert Robida - whose novels from the 19th century are such a storehouse for ironic "future predictions". Here are two examples from Le Le Vingtième Siècle (1882), imagining the future museum (Robin Boast will love this) as a consumer oriented media spectacle, and one showing Robida's central theme: airships and the infiltration of advertising media to every little corner possible...

Friday, 19 August 2011

Chemical Media Archaeology: Recrystallization

Here are some pictures from the recent Recrystallization workshop by Jonathan Kemp, Martin Howse and Ryan Jordan that took place in Berlin July 18-20, 2011.

The workshop consisted of dismantling with various means computer hardware down to its material bits, including gold, so as to excavate some of the components of "digital life." This is less metaphoric than experimental approach to look at the continuum between the material and the political economic.

"recrystallization was convened around the premise that while life itself starts from aperiodic crystals that encode infinite futures within a small number of atoms, the digital crystallization of the flesh by capital limits these futures to the point of exhaustion."

In more detail, recrystallization (following from an earlier workshop by Kemp and Jordan in London) consisted of:

Three sets of concurrent, feedbacking play and activities across three days:

1] Attempting to recover minerals and metals (including copper, gold and silver) from abandoned computers through execution of various volatile and chemical processes

2] The re-crystallisation of these minerals in novel arrays using raw/renditioned mineral assemblies including piezoelectrics, positive feedback, colloidal dispersions

3] The re-purposing and embedding of components and structures within wider geological and geophysical systems

Microresearch lab's performances and projects touch a new side in media archaeology that opens up our constituent machines, with various means including the chemical, in order to excavate what kind of modulations of light and energy sustain our contemporary hallucinations.

Related was the recent live (on Berlin Reboot FM) "data carvery":

"Data carving treats the user’s hard drive (and memory chips) as a surface for constant excavation. Reverse engineering daily data sediments promotes new forms of digital archaeology, with hard disk trouvee as rich seams to be opened and mined for mineral and personal gems."

Digital archaeology is mobilized into new, artistic-experimental operations.

At times, media archaeology might come with a Health and Safety warning.

The image(s) by: Martin Howse and Kathrin Günter.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Kill the darling part 13: less imaginary

Returning to killing text – this passage from my chapter on Imaginary Media!

It illustrates a point concerning imaginary media research not being only about objects and ideas imagined, but how practices of media consumption always draw from a variety of influences, including various discursive contexts. In short, this text paraphrases Erkki Huhtamo’s idea (from his chapter in the Book of Imaginary Media, 2006, edited by Eric Kluitenberg):

Imaginary media objects can be both devices but also practices of using media. Thus, for example “peeping” as a media practice (Huhtamo 2006) can be described in its various links between actual practices and devices, and the wider discursive contexts of desire, sexuality, and embodied activity.
For Huhtamo, peeping travels across such examples and from desktops of early religious worldviews, to later curiosity cabinet devices, it folds as part of 19th century visual culture of stereoscopes and other devices – and attaches to the topic of “armchair travelling” (2006: 111-113)[1] and later to 20th century avant-garde practices such as Oscar Fischinger’s use of Mutoscope and Marcel Duchamps employment of peeping in Hand-made Stereopticon Slide (Hand Stereoscopy, 1918-1919) and Rayon vert (1947). (137).
One of the characteristics of imaginary media as mobilized by Huhtamo’s (2006, cf. 2011) method of topos-analysis is that it is not placed solely on one already existing media apparatus, but is more like a link, a network between a variety of source materials, discourses of “real” and “fiction” and hence a travelling mode of practice/knowledge.

[1] For a literary example from the late 18th century, see Xavier Maistre’s Voyage autour de ma chambre-novel (1794) – “A Journey Around my Room”.

For those of you interested in more imaginary media research (before my chapter comes out), check out Huhtamo’s and Kluitenberg’s chapters in Media Archaeology.