Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Selfish Ledger

Systems of belief

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For many viewers, including me, I suspect that Google’s short film “The Selfish Ledger,” which I discussed here yesterday, was their introduction to the notion of speculative design. It’s a concept that evidently emerged through the work of the designers Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby of the Royal College of Art, who coined the term back in the nineties. In their recent book Speculative Everything, which I read over the weekend, they define the field as a form of criticism using design methods and techniques:

All good design is critical. Designers start by identifying shortcomings in the thing they are redesigning and offer a better version. Critical design applies this to larger more complex issues. Critical design is critical thought translated into materiality. It is about thinking through design rather than through words and using the language and structure of design to engage people.

Elsewhere, they characterize it as “design as a catalyst for social dreaming,” or what amounts to a form of science fiction using the tools of modern art, often in the form of museum installations or exhibits. As I studied the examples in their book, which is beautifully illustrated, I was left with a sensation much like the one that I felt after attending a symposium on futurology last month, which is that of a parallel development of speculative thought that has evolved independently of the tradition that I know best, with its own rules, conventions, and vocabulary.

In fact, I find speculative design—or at least the little of it I’ve seen—rather more interesting than academic futurology, which often suffers from its reliance on the same handful of concepts and catchphrases. Design, by definition, forces its practitioners to come to terms with tangible objects and materials, and the resulting ideas are often richer and more surprising because of their engagement with physical constraints. The closest equivalent might be the creation of sets and props for such movies as Minority Report, which might be the single most influential piece of futurology of the last two decades, although Dunne and Raby are careful to draw a distinction between the two fields. In Speculative Everything, they write:

One way of considering the fictional objects of speculative design is as props for nonexistent films. On encountering the object, the viewer imagines his or her own version of the film world the object belongs to. Film prop design, therefore, might seem like good source of inspiration for these objects, but as Piers D. Britton points out in “Design for Screen SF,” film props have to be legible and support plot development; they have to be readable, which undermines their potential to surprise and challenge. They are instrumental in moving the plot along.

In speculative design, by contrast, whether it’s a sculpture, a diorama, or a short film like “The Selfish Ledger,” the user’s momentary disorientation is the entire point. Many of these works are deliberately unheimlich, or uncanny, and much of their value lies in the mental exertion required to figure out what they’re trying to say, which would be discouraged in most conventional narratives.

As I browsed through Speculative Everything, which I read just after watching “The Selfish Ledger,” my eye was caught by a film installation, Belief Systems, by the German artist Bernd Hopfengaertner, which can be viewed in its entirety here. In their description, Dunne and Raby write:

Hopfengaertner asks what would happen if one of the tech industry’s many dreams comes true, if all the research being done by separate companies into making humans machine readable were to combine and move from laboratory to everyday life: combined algorithms and camera systems that can read emotions from faces, gait, and demeanor; neurotechnologies that cannot exactly read minds but can make a good guess at what people are thinking; profiling software that tracks and traces our every click and purchase; and so on. He developed six scenarios that explored different aspects of this rather grim world. In one, a person wants to buy a teapot. She walks up to a machine, pays, then hundreds of images of teapots flash before her on a screen suddenly stopping on one, the one the machine decides the shopper wants from reading micro expressions on her face. In another, a person is trying to identify muscle groups in her face so she can learn to control them and not give her feelings away, voluntarily becoming inhuman in order to protect her humanity.

The film is nearly a decade old, but its concerns seem even more relevant now. In the teapot segment, the vending machine is meant to “surprise” the user by giving her a product that she never really knew she wanted—which is the dream of consumer data aggregation. In another sequence, billboards are altered in real time in response to viewers’ facial expressions, which merely translates the default assumptions of online advertising into the world around us.

Belief Systems can be seen as a secret precursor to “The Selfish Ledger,” but there are also crucial differences. For one thing, there isn’t much doubt about Hopfengaertner’s point of view. (As Dunne and Raby note: “For some this is the ultimate user-centered dream, but for many Hopfengaertner’s project is a cautionary tale fast-forwarding to a time when currently diverse technologies are combined to ease our every interaction with technology.”) Google’s short film is more ambiguous, perhaps intentionally, but also because of its source. Speculative fiction sponsored by corporations will always have a different feel from the kind made by artists, partially because a corporate thought experiment has a way of turning imperceptibly into an action plan, but also because of the pressures operating on designers at such companies. Dunne and Raby speak shrewdly of design’s “inherent optimism,” which can turn into a trap in itself:

It is becoming clear that many of the challenges we face today are unfixable and that the only way to overcome them is by changing our values, beliefs, attitudes, and behavior. Although essential most of the time, design’s inbuilt optimism can greatly complicate things, first, as a form of denial that the problems we face are more serious than they appear, and second, by channeling energy and resources into fiddling with the world out there rather than the ideas and attitudes inside our heads that shape the world out there.

An artist working independently has the luxury of functioning as a skeptic or a critic, while the equivalent at Google, however nobly intentioned, can hardly help turning all dilemmas into problems that the Google design team is uniquely qualified to solve—which is a slippery belief system in itself. I’ll offer a few final thoughts on the subject tomorrow.

Written by nevalalee

June 5, 2018 at 8:28 am

The time bind

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Last month, The Verge posted a leaked copy of a fascinating short film titled “The Selfish Ledger,” which was produced two years ago for internal consumption at Google. It’s only eight minutes long, and it’s well worth watching in its entirety, but this summary by journalist Vlad Savov does a good job of capturing its essence:

The nine-minute film starts off with a history of Lamarckian epigenetics, which are broadly concerned with the passing on of traits acquired during an organism’s lifetime. Narrating the video, [Google design head Nick] Foster acknowledges that the theory may have been discredited when it comes to genetics but says it provides a useful metaphor for user data…The way we use our phones creates “a constantly evolving representation of who we are,” which Foster terms a “ledger,” positing that these data profiles could be built up, used to modify behaviors, and transferred from one user to another…The middle section of the video presents a conceptual Resolutions by Google system, in which Google prompts users to select a life goal and then guides them toward it in every interaction they have with their phone…with the ledger actively seeking to fill gaps in its knowledge and even selecting data-harvesting products to buy that it thinks may appeal to the user. The example given in the video is a bathroom scale because the ledger doesn’t yet know how much its user weighs.

With its soothing narration and liberal use of glossy stock footage, it’s all very Black Mirror, and when asked for comment, a spokesperson at Google seemed to agree: “We understand if this is disturbing—it is designed to be. This is a thought-experiment by the Design team from years ago that uses a technique known as ‘speculative design’ to explore uncomfortable ideas and concepts in order to provoke discussion and debate. It’s not related to any current or future products.”

There’s a lot to unpack here, and I’m hoping to discuss various aspects of the film over the next few days. For now, though, I’d like to focus on one detail, which is the notion that the “ledger” of a user’s data amounts to a repository of useful information that can be passed down from one generation to another. (The title of the film is an open homage to The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins, which popularized an analogous concept in the realm of natural selection.) In a voiceover, Foster says:

User data has the capability to survive beyond the limits of our biological selves, in much the same way as genetic code is released and propagated in nature. By considering this data through a Lamarckian lens, the codified experiences within the ledger become an accumulation of behavioral knowledge throughout the life of an individual. By thinking of user data as multi-generational, it becomes possible for emerging users to benefit from the preceding generations’ behaviors and decisions. As new users enter an ecosystem, they begin to create their own trail of data. By comparing this emergent ledger with the mass of historical user data, it becomes possible to make increasingly accurate predictions about decisions and future behaviors. As cycles of collection and comparison extend, it may be possible to develop a species-level understanding of complex issues such as depression, health and poverty. Our ability to interpret user data combined with the exponential growth in sensor-enabled objects will result in an increasingly detailed account of who we are as people. As these streams of information are brought together, the effect is multiplied: new patterns become apparent and new predictions become possible.

In other words, the data that we create is our legacy to those who will come after us, who can build on what we’ve left behind rather than starting from scratch.

The funny thing, of course, is that we’ve been doing something like this for a while now, at least on a societal level, using a decidedly less sexy format—the book. In fact, the whole concept of “emerging users [benefiting] from the preceding generations’ behaviors and decisions” is remarkably close to the idea of time-binding, as defined by the Polish philosopher Alfred Korzybski, whose work had a profound impact on the science fiction of the thirties and forties. In the monumental, borderline unreadable Science and Sanity, the founding text of General Semantics, Korzybski describes this process in terms that might have been drawn directly from “The Selfish Ledger,” using language that is nearly a century old: “I defined man functionally as a time-binder, a definition based on a…functional observation that the human class of life differs from animals in the fact that, in the rough, each generation of humans, at least potentially, can start where the former generation left off.” Elsewhere, he adds:

The human rate of progress is swifter than that of the animals, and this is due mainly to the fact that we can summarize and transmit past experiences to the young generation in a degree far more effective than that of the animals. We have also extra-neural means for recording experiences, which the animals lack entirely.

The italics are mine. Korzybski uses the example of a mathematician who “has at his disposal an enormous amount of data; first, his personal experiences and observation of actual life…and also all the personal experiences and observations of past generations…With such an enormous amount of data of experience, he can re-evaluate the data, ‘see’ them anew, and so produce new and more useful and structurally more correct higher order abstractions.” And this sounds a lot like “The Selfish Ledger,” which echoes Korzybski—whose work was an important precursor to dianetics—when it speaks of reaching a better understanding of such issues as “depression, health and poverty.”

I don’t know whether “The Selfish Ledger” was directly influenced by Korzybski, although I would guess that it probably wasn’t. But he provides a useful starting point for understanding why the world evoked in the film feels so disturbing, when it’s really a refinement of a process that is as old as civilization itself. On some level, it strikes viewers as a loss of agency, with the act of improvement and refinement outsourced from human hands to an impersonal corporation and its algorithms. We no longer trust companies like Google, if we ever did, to guide us as individuals or as a society—although much of what the video predicts has already come to pass. Google is already an extension of my memory, and it determines my ability to generate connections between information in ways that I mostly take for granted. Yet these decisions have long been made for us by larger systems in ways that are all but invisible, by encouraging certain avenues of thought and action while implicitly blocking off others. (As Fredric Jameson put it: “Someone once said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.”) Not all such systems are inherently undesirable, and you could argue that science, for instance, is the best way so far that the ledger of society—which depended in earlier periods on myth and religion—has found to propagate itself. It’s hard to argue with Korzybski when he writes: “If the difference between the animal and man consists in the capacity of the latter to start where the former generation left off, obviously humans, to be humans, should exercise this capacity to the fullest extent.” The problem, as usual, lies in the choice of tactics, and what we call “culture” or even “etiquette” can be seen as a set of rules that accomplish by trial and error what the ledger would do more systematically. Google is already shaping our culture, and the fact that “The Selfish Ledger” bothers to even explore such questions is what makes it a worthwhile thought experiment. Tomorrow, I’ll be taking a closer look at its methods, as well as the question of how speculative design, whether by corporations or by artists, can lead to insights that lie beyond even the reach of science fiction.

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