Sunday, November 15, 2009

Brucker-Cohen, Noise, and the Impossible

After listening on Jonah Brucker-Cohen's artist talk, I'd like to take on a few concepts in Terranova's "Network Culture" and Brucker-Cohen's work. Namely, I'd like to look at the Carnivore client "Police Sate" (a system of radio operated toy cars that respond to "terrorist" text intercepted in network traffic), the "Bumplist" (an e-mail list-serv that acts as a last-in-first out queue for 6 people), and "Crank the Web" (a web browser connected to a crank that depends on a human to literally crank inbandwidth to a computer).

I wish to pose a few initial questions to act as a guide on this meditation:

What are we doing when we visualize wireless networks in physical space? This will take on noise and affect in "Police State."

How do local rules alter a global network? We will analyze the liquid phase in "Bump List."

Where does the impossible come into play in art? "GPS-HOG" will act as a starting point for this question.

I will then circle back and see how noise and the impossible might interact.


For the first question, how to look at the physical visualization of a wireless network, we need to see how networks operate. While "Police State" looks at how a Carnivore client reacts a data network, we can try to look at how networks react within imageecologies. Terranova defines communication and media as a biopolitical power, "a power of inducing perceptions and organizing the imagination, of establishing a subjective correspondence between images, percepts, affects, and beliefs" (152). We can try to expand this definition to those of the radio controlled cop cars, where when they pick up on the word "bomb" on the network, they organize themselves, re-orient their direction, and play their siren. Obviously these are toy cars controlled by a computer; however, one is tempted to think the NSA/FBI/CIA operates in much the same way.

We are looking at what this response means or does or consists of, and for that, Terranova's definition of affect is helpful. These cop cars immediately act upon an intriguing packet- a packet they cannot locate in space yet they drive towards, a word or text that can be taken out of context yet they reorient themselves to find this nowhere, a flight or fight response to this alert. It's as if the network packet sniffer acts as an organ and the packet as an image forTerranova : images touch every sensory organ, but "what we actually come to perceive consciously is only a fraction of what has touched us", there are "autonomic bodily remainders, of unrealized, or virtual, potentials" (152).

There is something leftover in this "Police State" network because the cop cars can never directly respond to the packet, such as a person can never respond directly to an image. The physical actions of the cop cars can act as theconscious perception that something has occurred, but the packet message remains in this unrealized space that the cop cars can never act upon. Are toy cop cars going to arrest the owner of the machine that send anIP packet, even though they can't track that packet down, even though a packet flew across a wireless space and was probably a word of a site downloaded from across the world? There's no 1-1 correlation between the police state and the messages theyreceive, and this is the only way a network can be illustrated in physical space in Brucker-Cohen's work. We see a visualization of reaction, not of some secret innards of cyberspace.


Once we know that we are not visualizing a hidden network in these pieces, but visualizing affect (the network of police cars and their reaction to a network of packets), we need to understand how rules direct behavior for the local within this global network. In other words, changing directions and turning on lights are two actions for the police cars, but determining when, in what order, and where those actions take place is important in forming the larger structure that the multiple cars generate. "BumpList" would act as good piece to analyze here since we are dealing directly with rules- only six people are allowed an e-mail list- where each e-mail address is added to the list and one is bumped and four stay on the list.

While these micro-states that will not allow for the emergence of a very complex structure, by forcing these rules, certain improbable sets can emerge (the user account that stayed on the list by re-enrolling every 5mins, a task so onerous that forced some to lost their jobs).

But are these occurrences hinting at Terranova's definition of the virtual? "The virtualization of a process involves opening up a real understood as devoid of transformative potential to the action of forces that exceed it from all sides" (27). We will explore this question in a minute, however, we need to understand the importance of laws and rules. Thevirtualization of a process only happens from the global state being ordered by local laws/rules. These rules constrict whatever information passes throughmicro-states to emerge this global. For example, only 26 letters are in the U.S. English alphabet (we will ignore emoticons and txt language for now), and by creating these local rules for 26 letters (syntax/grammar), any possible set of texts can emerge.

On BumpList, a new global is constantly created by these sets of micro-actions that one actor instigates (join the list) to alter the states of other actors (moved down one position in the queue order, or bumped). Brucker-Cohen's piece might take on different characteristics by allowing those on the list to act (perhaps if one sends 5 messages to the list, they are given bumpimmunity for 5 mins.), but he limited an actor's only action to enrolling on the list or re-enrolling.

Thus, the rules of the game are the most important action. I pointed out the anomaly of the list (the user that re-enrolled every 5mins.), and I think it's interesting when reading Terranova and her view of recursive feedback loops. "What makes the components of an open system small is not their size but the fact that they are grasped in terms of their overall relation to a large number of interchangeable components that interact on each other by way of recursive feedback loops... they are always becoming something else" (103). This fanatic user is trying to make the list not become something else (they want to remain on the list forever), but they are utilizing recursive-feedback loops of re-enrolling to do so. But at the same time, by constantly re-enrolling, the list always becomes something else, because another user is bumped. The recursive-loop inBumpList has a stabilization(homeostasis) action at the same time it destroys (entropic ) the list. But rules are king- that one action of enrolling by each actor determines the global state that never comes to a consensus.


But what the heck is the impossible then? Is it something novel, like these fringe cases of user's on BumpList? Is it something that leaves it's remnants over time, like a virus? Why did Brucker-Cohen focus on the odd interactions on BumpList as opposed to the user that logged on once and then was kicked off once- does that user not engage with the rules to create the impossible?

Let's get back to the text example. By constraining choice, we create probabilities, and thus we give the improbable a chance of happening, no matter how minuscule the probability comes out to. Looking at it in another way, every single set of texts not typed is the virtual, there are always new strings of characters and words that Google does not know (there's not Borges library). Sometimes, special strings of text will "irrupt and then recede, leaving only traces behind". In this analogy, I'm not sure what exactly that text would be. We can see the start of the Internet or May 68' as possible non-textual occurrences of the improbably occurring, perhaps something like the Koran, the Bible, or the Vedas would count as an improbable occurring in the world of text?

I think "GPS-HOG" brings up even more questions- it is an impossible occurrence (the web is blocked when one user enters the web), but this only occurs becauseBrucker -Cohen changed the rules of the network (he emits a wireless signal from his computer to suppress any other nodes from interacting with the network). Does this count as improbable sinceBrucker -Cohen changed the constraints of the network by affecting factors outside of the wireless network? Or must we wait for that single, chance happening when our packet mysteriously destroys all other packets entering a wireless router to call such an occurrence improbable?

This brings up further questions: is there something wrong with trying to look for the improbable in art? Do other art pieces better accomplish the improbable more easily? Can art pieces accomplish the improbable? This point might be better examined if we go back to our first look at "Police State" and the left-over from the image environment, the material are bodies don't know what to do with. From here, we can interrogate how noise and the improbable work.


According to Terranova, Shannon and Weaver drew the communication model incorrectly, specifically with the sender and receiver, as they didn't account for affect. "Interlocutors are not opposed, as in the traditional conceptions of the dialectical game, but they are assumed to be on the same side. Opposition to the agreement between sender and receiver cannot be subjective, but only objective and external, appearing only in the non-human form of meaningless noise" (15). This noise is precisely what creates thebiopolitical paradigm- the sender and receiver are not the same, they are different, and whatever is communicated leaves traces in both sender and receiver (whatTerranova defines as duration). Affect is the compulsion to communicate and produce/consume, but this affect only comes from these remainders of difference between the sender/receiver going haywire across the body of a receiver (mutation).

This makes one wonder if Brucker-Cohen is adding noise to the network through his work. For Weiner, noise is the "unbridgeable gap between representation and reality" (32). We can guess that Brucker-Cohen is trying to represent the impossible in "Police State" (cops that react in physical space to immaterial packets), create an environment for the impossible in "BumpList" (a user that destroys and stabilizes a network), or directly create the impossible with "GPS-HOG" (a user that suppresses packets with their own packets). However, I'm unsure of how the impossible relates to noise, if more noise leads to a higher chance of the impossible, or if illustrating or creating the impossible requires us to amplify noise within a network.


OK, after that meditation (acid-trip), I need to see where my argument leaks. In the meantime, here are some other questions that bugged me:

1. Should I bring in the political? Perhaps some art is better suited to deal with Terranova when it engages more directly with the political? Our current political spectrum is now "a more general compossibility of relations within fluid yet segmented bio-informational milieu" (155).

Terranova argues for the degree zero of politics (the 0.5 lambda of the CA), "the moment when politics makes its comeback" (139), where this fluid yet segmented allows for "relations ofcompossibility as well as concerted actions". I think "BumpList " is the work that most directly engages with this, the list-serve that constantly recreates itself, the list-serve that springs up out of nowhere adinfinitum.

2. Is there a relation between this new Utopia as a battleground and the intensification of labor of the commodity?

"On the contrary, it is the ways in which the global communication matrix allows such connections and organizations to take place that reveals the hard work implied" (156)

When I read the above line, I immediately recalled her discussion of labor, the conversion from a product to a process:

"Commodities do not so much as disappear as become more transparent, showing throughout their reliance on the labour which produces and sustains them. It is the labour of the designers and programmers that shows through a successful web site and it is the spectacle of that labour changing its product that keeps the users coming back. The commodity, then, is only as good as the labour that goes into it" (90)

There are massive amounts of labor that sustain the free internet- the constant updating of my political blog, the connections forged and destroyed (blog-roll links added and deleted). Is this labor to produce commodities the same "hard work" that goes into producing organizations? Do they both engage the general intellect?

3. Finally, I winced a bit when I read about homogenizing masses:
"Similarly, a traversely-connected multitude is quite alien to the logic of mass societies, in as much as the solidity and boundedness of the mass tend towards the production of homeostasis, that is increasing homogenization, while the multitude tends to engender, multiply and spread mutations" (105)
The "traversely-connected multitude" (bottom up) and the mass (top down) are at odds, but I think the mass can easily be composed of a traversely-connected multitude. What definition of mass is being used here? Baudrillard's? Terranova's?

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