Learning from Apollo

Lego model of the Lunar Excursion Module
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Apollo 11 is more than nostalgia for me, it’s a way to think about tomorrow’s challenges

If you’re interested in the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar mission then you’re probably already completely entranced by the BBC World Service podcast 13 Minutes to the Moon, in which Kevin Fong dissects the landing and puts every aspect into a broader technical, political, social and profoundly human context.

13 Minutes to the Moon

It’s an outstanding series in every respect, combining archive footage from the mission and old and new interviews with many of those involved, with an intelligent script and beautiful sound design, and I can’t recommend it enough. Produced by  Andrew Luck-Baker and with Rami Tzabar as Executive Producer, it’s brilliantly made and one of the best audio documentaries you can find online.

If you work in computing or engineering then it’s worth it just for the insight into the complexities of the hardware and software involved, as it doesn’t hold back from going into technical details about the engineering and coding challenges, giving you all the background you need to be fully present as the lunar excursion module separates from the command module and begins to descend. Knowing how it ends doesn’t diminish the power of the story, or the emotional investment you make as a listener.

It’s worth listening to every episode – each is around 45 minutes – but if you don’t have time the whole thing then I urge you to listen to Episodes 8 and 9, which take you from the separation of the two spacecraft in lunar orbit – the Command Module and the Lunar Excursion Module –  to the final ’stay’ decision after landing. And that detail is what makes it so good – it doesn’t stop at the moment of touchdown, but covers the three points in the next two hours when Mission Control had to decide to stay or go.  They stay.

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The Day the Music Dies

Points of light
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A long long time ago…

I was at the Janelle Monáe gig at Wembley Arena on Tuesday, and it was as magnificent as you’d expect from this brilliant performer. We stood close enough to see properly, and far enough back to dance properly.

Between songs she said something that resonated with me, and it has prompted me to finish a piece I’d been noodling around with for some weeks. Speaking with some emotion, she said that the reason she performed was to create memories, to pass something to each of us in the audience, and she expressed a hope that we’d pass the memories we were making tonight on to others.

In one way this echoes the grand concept of her songs, which reflect the world of an android named Cindi Mayweather, an alter-ego through whom Monáe explores ideas of technology and otherness. After all, the memories of androids can be stored and transferred – or wiped as in the Dirty Computer Emotion Picture [see https://www.jmonae.com/] that accompanies the album which links the songs together with a story in which defective androids – ‘dirty’ computers – have their memories erased to make them ’normal’.

But for me, as I looked around an auditorium filled with points of light from thousands of mobile phones – twenty years ago it would have been cigarette lighters but few people carry them any more and there are probably sprinklers in the roof now- it made me think of the real organic memories that were being made in this place, at this time, with these people, making this music. Memories that can’t be downloaded or moved around on the quantum equivalent of USB sticks. It made me wonder what happens to Janelle Monáe’s music when the last person in this room, the last person to have been in the same space as her as she performs, dies.

I’ve been thinking about this for a while, mostly because of Chopin and Buddy Holly, and because it’s forty years since I saw The Who play at Wembley, without Keith Moon.

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First they came for the numberplates

A surveillance camera on the Cambridge-London train
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I don’t like being watched, especially when I don’t know who the watchers are, and the rapid growth in cameras in streets, shops, trains, buses, public spaces and private buildings has troubled me for many years.

Until recently the watchers were, at least, human – delightfully limited in their perceptual capacity and ability to identify or discriminate, tired and distracted and even bored with their job as they sat behind banks of monitors.

And of course most of the material was never even watched, instead being held on a hard drive on a neglected server in a dank office awaiting some incident that would require it to be reviewed, but more likely to be overwritten to make disk space for today’s similarly neglected footage.

This is no longer the case. More and more of the cameras that capture us as we go about our lives – like the one in this rail carriage watching me as I write – are not intended for human viewing at all, but are input sensors for an increasingly sophisticated surveillance machine. It used to be misleading to say that a camera was ‘watching’ you as it was just an image capture device – at some point a human being needed to to the actual watching.

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AI at the Barbican: not so bright after all

MakrShakr cocktail robots: AI More than Human
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AI: More Than Human is a new exhibition at the Barbican which promises an unprecedented survey of creative and scientific developments in artificial intelligence, and if we’re prepared to stretch our understanding of the term AI to encompass sculpture and images generated by neural networks, mythical creatures made of animated clay, geared mechanisms that encrypt messages. and anthropmorphic cooking tools then it certainly delivers.

The Curve exhibition space is so packed with artefacts, artworks and artificiality that it begins to overwhelm the visitor. It’s not surprising that one of the exhibits, programmed to tune in to faces in front of its camera, was apparently distracted by the images on the screens of other exhibits, as they are only partially hidden by the gauze screens that separate this rich and complex collection of thematically and chronologically ordered artefacts.

Alter 3 Robot: AI More than HUman

Alter 3 Robot: AI More than HUman

The Alter 3 robot is not alone in being not knowing where to look. As I walked through the space I was constantly distracted and diverted, turning from screen to object to interactive exhibit as I wondered exactly what story was being told here.

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Self-Sabotage and Self-Care

Holding my laptop
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Towards the end of Ivan Reitman’s Ghostbusters there’s a confrontation on top of Spook Central, and after the ghostbusters have all been blasted away by Gozer/Janine, Winston turns to Ray and says in an exasperated tone: ‘Ray…when someone asks you if you are a god, you say yes!’

Ray…when someone asks you if you are a god, you say yes!

It’s the same with your subconscious. When you ask yourself if you’ve had enough, it’s a good idea to say ‘yes’ and do something about it. A clear message from the bits of your mind that don’t get to hold the attention baton very often should be attended to, because they have to work hard to get through to the systems that get most of the limelight, and so it is probably important.

And so it was for me this week.

I’ve just spent three days trying so hard to sabotage my work pattern that I would be a fool to disregard it, and yet it was only in the middle of a WhatsApp chat with Ira Bolychevsky that I realised what I’d done. I thought I was being careless, but in fact I was sending myself a very clear message.

And the message is: you can’t carry on juggling like this.

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Slouching Towards the Silicon Foundry

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Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

WB Yeats, The Second Coming

It’s sixty years since CP Snow gave the Rede Lecture at Cambridge University (May 7 1959) and talked of the Two Cultures, and ten years since I gave a fiftieth anniversary commemorative lecture at the Computer Lab in which I discussed my own model of the new 10(base 2) cultures that define modern world.

I argued then that today’s fundamental division is not between science and humanities but betwen those who understand computational thinking and those who don’t.

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I Declare a Data Emergency. #DataEmergency

Cables on the Underground
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Because we need usable data to help us address our global crises.

We’ve had the climate emergency and the biodiversity emergency. We know that the planet is changing as a result of human activity over the past two centuries and that the resulting conditions are unlikely to be amenable to the continuation of human civilisation or – in extremis – our species, along with several million others.

The earth will be fine, of course. We’re not going to topple into the sun or kill the magnetic field or do anything that will stop our planet circling the sun without us for a million or billion years. It’s just the fragile biosphere that seems likely to change rather significantly for the worse, at least from our perspective.

In the space where I spent most of my time, the space in which we tend to assume a future in a hand-waving automagical sort of way, where we speculate about the impact of low-latency ultrafast 5G networks and ML systems sophisticated enough to emulate certain features of biological intelligence, we have our own emergency, but so far we’ve been reticent about naming it or calling for unified action. Perhaps it’s time.

So I’ve decided to declare a data emergency, alerting us to a state of affairs that could end up doing significant damage to our chances of retaining a viable biosphere with enough species to sustain the food web we rely on, as well as turning our dreams of online utopia into a surveillance nightmare of social control, societal breakdown and individual misery.

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Using Archives to Challenge Misinformation

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I was asked to speak at a conference around the importance of our cultural heritage, organised by Louise Broch from Dansk Kulturarv and taking place at the offices of DR in Copenhagen.

My title was 

Using cultural archives to challenge ‘fake news’

And the outline was:

 “Those who control the past, control the future; and those who control the present, control the past.” 

Seventy years after the publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell’s observation remains true and relevant – but it does not have to be read as a testament to the power of autocracies. 

Instead we can treat our access to and use of cultural archives as an important tool in pushing against misinformation and ‘fake news’ in the modern world. We can use our ability to shape our access to the past for good, if we choose to. 

The Talk

This is the text I based my talk on. 

A view of the DR offices walking from the metro

First, let’s get rid of the term ‘fake news’. It has been appropriated by a number of politicians, most notably the President of the United States,  to undermine good journalism and try to damage people’s belief in the news they read.

As Claire Wardle from First Draft has argued very strongly, the term ‘fake’ is cannot cover the many different types of misinformation(the inadvertent sharing of false information) and disinformation(the deliberate creation and sharing of information known to be false), and it also taps into a whole narrative about the ‘mainstream media’ that is designed to undermine and damage the credibility of journalism. 

See https://medium.com/1st-draft/fake-news-its-complicated-d0f773766c79

As a journalist myself I’d rather not be part of that process. 

So let’s try to avoid ‘fake news’.  

If I had the choice I’d probably revert to two old-fashioned words to describe the stuff we see shared online: liesand propaganda– but I’ll accept misinformation and disinformation as useful working categories.

So here’s our question, restated: what is to be done to limit the disruption, oppression and political impact caused by mis- and disinformation? And how we can use AV archives to counter deceitful content in all its rich variety?

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Fake Reality: beyond fake news

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Air Quality in London, May 1 2019, Perhaps.

This is what the air quality in London looks like as I leave for Cambridge at the end of another day, and it’s not too bad. Except that this isn’t a picture of the air quality at all – it’s a visualiisation provided by the CityAir app on my phone screen, interpreting data from a sensor network and representing it as geodata overlaid on a map, with a colour coded scale designed to be easily interpretable because it follows a normal western convention.  

There are no numbers, but it’s green (the colour of nature!) and I feel slightly reassured that I haven’t poisoned myself too much on the bus from Savoy Place to King’s Cross.  

I could be fooling myself. It could be that there are toxins there that are simply not detected by the range of sensors available to CityAir. In fact, in the case of a chemical attack it’s highly likelly that CityAir would show all green as there would be no  cars and buses in the area because of the ensuing security alert.  

So this image isn’t ‘real’ in any sense except that it’s useful to me. However since the same could be said of my entire sensorium and the mental models I build of the world on the basis of the sense data I gather and interpret, I’m not going to dismiss it out of hand.

I’ve always had a problem with the term ‘virtual reality’ because it carries the implcation that there’s  a ‘real’ reality that it replaces.  And since I already augment my reality with the spectacles that make this screen readable I’m not sure why the augmentation provided by light field manipulating digital technologies should get sole use of the term.

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It was twenty-five years ago today…

Imagologies
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In 1994 the ICA played host to the world’s first ‘webcast’ of a live event when the Intellectuals and the New Media debate, hosted to launch Esa Saarinen and Mark Taylor’s book Imagologies(Routledge, London, 1993), was relayed online.

This is my version of what happened that evening. Others are available.

It’s April 29th1994 and I am in a van on the way to London having just liberated a few tens of thousands of pounds of expensive computing kit from the company I work for in Cambridge, in the name of art.

It’s legitimate, mostly, in that nobody will ask me why I did it as long as it’s all returned by morning and still works, and I might even get thanked for extracting the contents of the training room and moving it the Institute for Contemporary Arts if the project actually comes together and generates some interest in this ‘Internet’ thing.

Because tonight, for one night only, a group of Cambridge’s finest net pioneers – back in the day when being online at all made you a ‘pioneer’ – are going to put the ICA on the web and host what turns out to be (one of) the first events that takes place simultaneously online and offline, as we take the debate accompanying the launch of the book ‘Imagologies’ in the ICA’s Nash Room and project it into cyberspace.  

Well, if cyberspace isn’t ‘lines of non-light ranged the mind’ but a website with live updates, some audio files, and an interactive text-based MOO that lets anyone around the world with a net connection join in the debate ‘in the room’. It’s a start.

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