The Clock

By Rachel Thomson

Her name was Wren, and as I sat beside her in the dark cinema, letting her gum my fingers with her soft wet exploratory mouth, I experienced a synchronisation between the human body and an extended ‘electric’ consciousness.

The film we were watching was Christian Marclay’s The Clock, a tapestry of film fragments synchronised to real time, anchoring audience, documents and narrative within a 24-hour cycle. While the fragments are drawn from the history of the cinema, The Clock is a deeply digital project, with editing underpinned by automated searches of the database that is the history of cinema.

We enjoy clusters of meaningful transition: built around gesture; shots; cineaste jokes; and perhaps also accident. Each transition is ‘cute’ (we see what you did there) but ephemeral, as time’s arrow drives us forward and reminds us that yes, it is that time, inside and outside the screen. But this is a circular time. I can come again on the weekend for the 24-hour showing and witness the rarely-seen material documenting the wee-small hours. I wonder how much movie time is given over to 3.30 am. Maybe night-time goes more quickly? Or are the sequences just longer? I predict a flurry of phone calls waking people with bad news.

I feel anxious about how much time I can afford to spend here, but also hating to miss anything. If I manage to see it all, would I have consumed time or film history? Or should I just chill out and treat this as an extended metaphor, telling stories from the materiality of culture, facilitated by automated search and retrieval?

The cinema is packed, the audience is compelled. As conceptual art this works, as entertainment this works. Interestingly people seem to come and go on the hour, using the clock to structure their voyeurism. But I am connected to Wren and her indigenous temporality. As we sit at adjacent sofas we play pat-a-cake until she gets bored. She explores my rings, enjoys eye contact as it comes and goes in the flickering light. She is on Wren-time: her cycles and circles are both faster and slower than clock time and they are never the same twice. Wren has been born for nine months so far, and I take my cue to slip away when she forgets me and moves onto the next thing.

Christian Marclay’s The Clock is showing at the Tate Modern until January 20th 2019.

Messy Notes from the Messy Edge

By Jo Lindsay Walton

 “[…] had the it forow sene […]”

— John Barbour, The Brus (c.1375)

I am in the Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts. It is my first time in the Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts.

It’s a pretty good Centre.

It’s Messy Edge 2018, part of Brighton Digital Festival. The name “Messy Edge,” I guess, must be a play on “cutting edge.” It must be a rebuke to a certain kind of techno‑optimism – or more specifically, to the aesthetics which structure and enable that optimism. That is, the image of technology as something slick, even, and precise, which glides resistlessly onward through infinite possibility. If this aesthetic has any messiness at all, it’s something insubstantial, dispersed as shimmer and iridescence and lens flare.

My mind flicks to a chapter in Ruth Levitas’s Utopia as Method, where she explores the utopian presence that pervades the colour blue. Blue sky thinking, the blues. She never mentions “blueprint,” and I wonder if that’s deliberate? – an essay haunted, textured, structured, enabled, by its unuttered pun. Like how no one ever asks Bojack Horseman, “Why the long face?”

Utopia as Method – my copy anyway – is blue.

Some artists are really awful at talking about their art. Some, I suspect, do this deliberately. Or at least, their incompetence comes from stubborn adherence to something disordered and convoluted, to something in their work that would vanish from any punchy soundbyte. I like them, these artists who are really awful at talking about their art. “Awful” – filled with awe?

By contrast, the digital artists at Messy Edge are by and large very good at talking about their art, and about the political context of their art.

OK, I like them too.

Continue reading “Messy Notes from the Messy Edge”

Intelligent Futures: Automation, AI and Cognitive Ecologies

By Maisie Ridgway

Intelligent Futures was a postgraduate and ECR conference, supported by CHASE DTP and Sussex Humanities Lab. Over the course of two days, the conference challenged researchers to find original, philosophical and cultural approaches to Artificial Intelligence. The interdisciplinary explorations spanned the social sciences, informatics, psychology, art, literature and more, promoting critical and speculative engagements with technical cognition.

Thomas Nyckel of the Technical University Braunschweig led the first panel, which sought to engage with AI from a philosophical standpoint. Nyckel’s paper fostered an alternative approach for understanding the processes of digital devices and computation through the variable definitions of the ‘rule of thumb’. Nyckel’s identified two categorisations of the rule of thumb – Frederick Taylor’s conception, concerned with exact scientific results, and Alan Turing’s interest in approximate computational methodologies. What materialised was a synthesis of ideas that challenged the nature and myth of scientific exactitude and complicated the binary of workman and machine, or the approximate rule of thumb and exact scientific methods. Mattia Paganelli followed Nyckel with a paper on the misnomer of ‘artificial’ when speaking of non‑human intelligence. Paganelli argued that the term shored up the binary between subject and object by attributing an a priori definition of the perimeter of possibility for a given system. Rather than artificial, Paganelli suggested the term ‘thinking machines’, understanding intelligence as a process of learning, plasticity and openness to name a few key attributes.

The next panel united speakers under the common theme of ethics. Camilla Elphick of the University of Sussex spoke about her ongoing project to develop an AI chatbot, named Spot, as a means by which victims of work place sexual harassment can report their experiences. Spot’s distinctly unhuman style of engagement meant that victims did not feel embarrassed, judged, scrutinised or pressured, garnering more accurate information. On an entirely different note, Marek Iwaniak’s paper explored how theologies and pre-technological religious imaginaries could engage with the novel challenge of AI. Iwaniak speculated on possible intersections between various religions and AI such as a Buddhist approach to technical cognition whereby the ultimate aim of developers could be an AI consciousness of pure bliss.

The final panel of the day explored changing ideas of writing, asking whether an anthropocentric conception of literary creativity obscured other forms of nonhuman creative generativity from view. John Phelan of the Open University investigated if AI could ever critically appreciate poetry or poetic significance outside of large sample readings of rhyme schemes for example. Emma Newport, from the University of Sussex, considered digitised end-of-life writing via the unusual case of the popular Mumsnet contributor IamtheZombie, whose posthumous in memoriam comments from fellow Mumsnet users formed an innovative kind of obituary, a cellular tissue of text that democratised the death process and made end-of-life writing a collaborative act.

Joanna Zylinska’s keynote speech, entitled ‘Creative Computers, Art Robots and AI Dreams,’ drew together the prevalent themes of the day, excavating the myth of the robot to determine that humans, especially the great artists amongst us, have always been technological. Zylinska used various art-AI projects, including Taryn Southern’s AI generated music and The Rembrandt Microsoft Project (involving AI creating an imitation Rembrandt painting), in order to interrogate the value of AI artistic production, delineate how our senses construct the world we inhabit, and ask what it means that seeing, for example, no longer requires a human looker. The result was a critique of AI as that which exponentially amplifies our desires and therefore marketability, as well as an optimism for the possible joys of robotic and AI art, described by Zylinska as ludic creation.

Day two began with a panel on epistemology. Emma Stamm of Virginia Tech presented a paper on the renaissance of psychedelic science and the implications this field could have for AI. Stamm described the importance of qualitative over quantitative methods of research, arguing that qualitative research into psychedelic drugs problematises the positivist and generalising principles of machine learning as a basis for AI. Juljan Krause from the University of Southampton followed with his thoughts on representations of quantum computing in popular science discourse. Krause offered an interesting overview of how the emerging technology of quantum computing functions differently from present modes of computation. He then explored media representations of quantum computation, which portray an ongoing quantum computational arms race (led by China).

The penultimate panel revolved around the theme of aesthetics. In his paper on art and artificial intelligence Michael Haworth reconfigured the relationship between human and machine as an equal coupling, a functional interdependence manifest in the example of AARON, the painting and drawing robot. Haworth relayed how the creativity of AARON rests in the relation between the program and programmer, an interplay that performs a structural shift from the human as tool user to the human as engineer and organiser. Following Haworth, Dominique Baron-Bonarjee presented a performative lecture during which she enacted Liquidity, an embodied, meditative practice that she designed to explore ideas of free time in an increasingly automated age. Baron-Bonarjee monitored the activity of her brain throughout the lecture using a MUSE headband which measured her brain waves.

Memory and Time formed the focus of the final panel, offering an eclectic range of thoughts on automation and redundancy, logistics and inscribed narrative time. Kieran Brayford discussed the possible ramifications of mass technological unemployment and forced leisure time, coming to similar conclusions as Phelan with regards to the limitations of automated agents as unable to explain significance. Eva-Maria Nyckel’s followed Brayford’s more general overview with a specific example of automated industry in the form of Amazon’s anticipatory shipping method. Nyckel used a patent for the shipping method as the basis to unpack the potentially huge impact it could have on the temporality of logistical processes. In a change of topic, Daniel Barrow of Birkbeck University turned to contemporary experimental fiction and the technological, inhuman agency of Big Data, which finds its form in a static and autonomous narrative time.

To close the conference a number of notable Sussex based academics and researchers came together for a round table discussion. Taking part were Caroline Bassett, Peter Boxall, David M. Berry, Beatrice Fazi, Simon McGregor and Michael Jonik, all of whom were asked to choose one key word that would explain their research. Boxall chose the word ‘artificiality’ as a recourse to explore its supposed opposite- the human. He offered the idea of the Augustinian human as somewhere between beast and angel, a figure made legible according to taxonomies that we map onto it. McGregor’s word was ‘alien’. As a cognitive scientist McGregor explained that the world is full of minds that cannot be reduced to their materiality and are eternally separated by an unbroachable void. Any attempts to understand these minds would aid efforts to predict their behaviour but would also bring us further away from other humans. Other keywords included intelligence, contingency, mastery, and critical reason, with final thoughts settling on the infinitude of computation, the passive intellect of algorithmic infrastructure, and the potential for the world to continue in the absence of humans.

Over its two days, Intelligent Futures gathered a range of richly provocative critical interventions, and created spaces for stimulating discussion of Artificial Intelligence. It demonstrated the importance of further critical, interdisciplinary study of Artificial Intelligence, as it continues to inform, and to transform, the societies we live in.

Maisie Ridgway is a CHASE funded PhD student at the University of Sussex. Her research interests include ideas of pre-digital poetics from Joyce to present, the viral vitality of language and the points at which science and literature intersect, mutually informing each other.

Maria José Aurindo visits the Lab

In September 2018 the Sussex Humanities Lab were delighted to host an Erasmus+ Visitor. In this post Maria José Aurindo from the Library of Estoril Higher Institute for Tourism and Hotel Studies, Portugal, describes the highlights of her time with us.

Sea, beach, buildings
Brighton

In September 2018, as a member of Museu Virtual do Turismo, I spent a week at the University of Sussex, sponsored by a mobility grant from the Erasmus+ programme. Mobility is one of the core activities in international cooperation, aiming to enhance the quality of higher education, and to promote connections and collaborations across Europe. In addition, an Erasmus+ Training Mission represents a fantastic opportunity for personal and professional development.

James Baker, Senior Lecturer in Digital History and Archives, co-coordinated the visit together with Sussex Humanities Lab Programme Manager Amelia Wakeford. James welcomed me and provided me with an extremely valuable professional experience week programme. I was able to engage with so much in such a short period at the University. I really wonder what we could do in a month-long visit!

James presented several lines of research he’s currently involved with, in particular highlighting digital forensics and projects like The Programming Historian. He also introduced me to the various operating modes of the Sussex Humanities Lab, and showed me how its flexible use of space helps to meet complex scheduling needs, and to foster a truly collaborative and interdisciplinary research environment.

Sunny day, grassy hill, tree and library
University of Sussex campus

I was also fortunate to have personalized tours of both the Library and the Keep (Sussex’s special collections archive). It was great to see the differences and similarities within the archive and library equipment’s and services, and to encounter all the great work that’s being done there: from Karen Watson embracing the challenge of producing interactive digital editions of the Virginia Woolf’s papers; to Samira Teuteberg exploring the German Jewish Collections; Amy Waldron’s ambition for new library study spaces; and Adam Harwood’s digital preservation advocacy mission.

We managed to discuss matters ranging from the curatorial concerns, digitalization calibration anxieties, the need for risk management regarding author’s rights, the recreation of physicality debates, low-cost preservation strategies, to the need to raise awareness for digital preservation.

I was also introduced to the challenges to the design of the new Heritage MA seen through the eyes of Wendy Hitchmough, Senior Lecturer in Art History. Her experience allowed me to think through several new research perspectives, from which I would highlight the strong need to consider the ecology of heritage visits, in both physical and virtual tours.

Picture of someone on stage, using a PowerPoint presentation
Nye Thompson discussing the Machine Gaze selfie at Messy Edge 2018

And – to conclude the visit – what could be better than a full day spent learning from the amazing projects presented at The Messy Edge 2018? The event, supported by the Sussex Humanities Lab, and part of Brighton Digital Festival, certainly broadened my research horizons, as theorists and practitioners presented on the rich variety of topics within digital humanities. This included everything from the right to be forgotten (something made more and more difficult in the dark age of connectionism); to the right to be represented and remembered (and the need to protect community generated archives from future erasure); from the conceptual landscapes of image and sound recognition; to surveillance, big data, and algorithmic governance; and much more.

Besides the professional experience, I also had the opportunity to get to know the beautiful and cosy city of Brighton – already a long-standing icon of my tourism imagery, and now a place that I’ve finally been able to visit in person!

I can say that my stay was truly rewarding, and it will undoubtedly be repeated. I would love for this visit to be the start of further work together.

Welcome

Welcome to the sparkling new Sussex Humanities Lab blog!

What is this field, called the Digital Humanities? Broadly speaking, it’s about a dialogue – occasionally a tussle, or a two-part harmony – between all the things humanities scholars have traditionally done, and the new and emerging practices which digital technology enables. Here at the SHL, we’re organised into four strands: Digital History/Digital Archives, Digital Media/Computational Culture, Digital Technologies/Digital Performance, and Digital Lives/Digital Memories; we also collaborate extensively with the TAG (Text Analysis Group) Lab, and with the University of Sussex Library. Building innovative archival and analytic tools to reappraise literary and cultural heritage is part of what we do; so is thinking through the ethical implications of the changing nature of privacy and personal data; so is investigating fledging or fleeting everyday cultural practices of social media users. The fore-edges of medieval manuscripts are in our wheelhouse; so are the memes of 4Chan.

But even a permissive definition of the Digital Humanities risks falling short of the sheer richness and diversity of activity taking place under its rubric. The influence of the Digital Humanities spreads wide, as encounters with new cultural forms often cast fresh light on the familiar, revealing what was under our noses all along. Some scholars and artists have already started to prefer the term postdigital. Let’s not forget about that strong practice-led thread either: the Digital Humanities is not only critical and curatorial, but also creative.

Perhaps the best way to understand the Digital Humanities is to keep an eye on what Digital Humanities scholars are up to. That’s where this blog comes in. In the coming months we’ll be bringing you glimpses of dozens of exciting projects and initiatives with which the Sussex Humanities Lab is involved. We hope to make this blog a place of interest to researchers of all disciplines, and to the public at large.

For my part, I mostly work on the intersection of speculative fiction and economics. How are creators of speculative fiction imagining the impact of automation and Artificial Intelligence on society? Can speculative fiction inform the design of new institutions and policies, allowing us to meet the ecological challenges of the future? Or … maybe it can’t? Later in the year, I’ll be sharing my research more fully. But right now, I want to flag up two projects I’ve been involved with editorially, both hot off the presses. On the fiction side, there’s Strange Economics, an anthology from David Schultz, featuring original economics-themed short stories. The ebook will be free for a limited time. Then there’s Vector, the UK’s longest-running magazine of SF criticism. Vector #288, co-edited with Polina Levontin, a special issue devoted to the future of economics. The magazine only goes to members of the British Science Fiction Association, but we’ll be featuring plenty of excerpts on the Vector website over the next few months.