Eye to eye

From Chris Eckert, a maker of “little art machines”, has made what could be described as a surveillance sculpture.

A disconcerting installation featuring 20 blinking kinetic eyeballs that track a person around a room
San Francisco artist Chris Eckert, who wanted to make a point of increasing surveillance and decreasing privacy of the population, has created “Blink”, an absolutely incredible series of mechanically operating blinking single eyeballs in a row, each equipped with face tracking software to deliberately evoke a disconcerting sense of privacy violation.

Yes, that combination of a very realistic eyeball looking directly at you from a very unreal, robotic face is unsettling, but I think what really works well is what happens after, as Chris explains in this video.

“You would have these interactions with them, and hopefully enjoy yourself playing with these eyeballs, only to go around the corner to discover that you’ve been recorded and observed the entire time by multiple eyeballs. And that anyone in that room was watching those video feeds and observing you doing that. And it kind of shifted your view of what was happening there. It changed it from being fun to being kind of invasive.”

Look Out! Chris Eckert’s Machines Are Watching You | KQED Arts

There are many more remarkable art machines on his website, and here is a piece on his Privacy Not Included exhibition, that Blink formed part of.

Chris Eckert: Privacy Not Included exhibition at San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art
Privacy Not Included presents a sensorial experience that considers how we are viewed, followed, and tracked. As technology progresses and, in conjunction, as we continue to share personal data and information, what will be the consequences of our own privacy, our right to personal space, and ultimately, our freedom? In George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 about omnipresent surveillance and public manipulation, the author writes, “The choice for mankind lies between freedom and happiness and for the great bulk of mankind, happiness is better.” The works in the exhibition challenge us to contemplate this dilemma. They reflect the conundrum we face in our contemporary society: appreciating the joy of convenience and technology’s ability to provide us security and safety, versus negotiating between the disconcerting, constant surveillance and intrusion in our lives.

And to really bring that point home, here’s an article from Aeon on the same theme, convenience versus surveillance.

Orwell knew: we willingly buy the screens that are used against us
One can easily imagine choosing to buy a telescreen – indeed, many of us already have. And one can also imagine needing one, or finding them so convenient that they feel compulsory. The big step is when convenience becomes compulsory: when we can’t file our taxes, complete the census or contest a claim without a telescreen.

Pushing buttons

I’ve linked to this kind of thing before, back in 2015. It’s still quite interesting, though.

Why the world is full of buttons that don’t work
According to Langer, placebo buttons have a net positive effect on our lives, because they give us the illusion of control — and something to do in situations where the alternative would be doing nothing (which explains why people press the elevator call button when it’s already lit).

pushing-buttons-2

“Thermal comfort research demonstrates that when people have perceived temperature control over their spaces, some may tolerate higher levels of discomfort,” said Bean.

“If a non-functioning (placebo) thermostat or limited function thermostat is installed, just having the option to manipulate it can affect one’s perception.”

Dummy thermostats — those not wired into the system at all — can also be found in offices, according to Donald Prather of Air Conditioning Contractors of America.

“(They) were placed there to quiet a constant complainer by giving them control,” he said in an email. “As an engineering trainee I was sent to calibrate one. When I asked why they had me calibrate a thermostat that was not hooked up, they panicked and asked if I told the occupant it wasn’t hooked up.

“After assuring them I hadn’t spilled the beans, they admitted that, by not telling me it was disconnected, they thought I would put on a more realistic calibration show.”

Filmed memories

Here’s a interesting idea, a film of reconstructed memories.

“No Blue Without Yellow” by artist Maciek Janicki
San Francisco-based artist and animator Maciek Janicki takes us into the world of Vincent van Gogh with his latest short film. Created in partnership with the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, “No Blue Without Yellow” offers an immersive 3D tour, constructed using sampled paintings from consequential times in the renowned artist’s life.

No Blue Without Yellow

It’s very atmospheric, wandering around Van Gogh’s landscapes like that. It reminded me of this other attempt to bring his paintings to life, from Serena Malyon.

And here’s another film from Maciek Janicki, Paper City.

Paper City

Unbalanced

It’s hard to stop rubbernecking the political car crash in the US at the moment, but I think this piece from The Economist is a perfect summary of the current state of politics here in the UK.

Britain’s equilibrium of incompetence
The country’s political parties are exactly as inept as each other.
It is common for one of Britain’s great parties to be in crisis while the other is in clover. Labour tore itself apart in the Thatcher era and the Tories did the same during the Blair years. But Britain is currently witnessing something unusual: both its main parties are in crisis at the same time, divided over their future direction, racked by factional fights and worried about leadership challenges.

What a mess.

That’s not the way to do it: Zoe Williams assesses the problems with questioning the Prime Minister in Parliament
In Punch and Judy Politics: An insider’s guide to Prime Minister’s questions, Ayesha Hazarika and Tom Hamilton, both of whom have prepared parliamentary Opposition leaders for the House of Commons’ weekly ritual, take an exhaustive look at the “joust”, concluding as they begin: “If you were starting from scratch, this isn’t the way you’d build it. But this is what it is. We think it works”. This is a relaxed, urbane, rather fatalistic assessment, in the tradition of “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms”.

It’s hard to be an optimist these days. But perhaps we don’t need to be.

No doubt another Trump bestseller

Another book’s coming out about Trump’s train-wreck presidency. Well, at least he’s good for book sales.

Bob Woodward’s new book reveals a ‘nervous breakdown’ of Trump’s presidency
The dramatic and previously untold scene is recounted in “Fear,” a forthcoming book by Bob Woodward that paints a harrowing portrait of the Trump presidency, based on in-depth interviews with administration officials and other principals. […]

Woodward depicts Trump’s anger and paranoia about the Russia inquiry as unrelenting, at times paralyzing the West Wing for entire days. Learning of the appointment of Mueller in May 2017, Trump groused, “Everybody’s trying to get me”— part of a venting period that shellshocked aides compared to Richard Nixon’s final days as president.

The author is the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Bob Woodward, of Watergate fame, so it will be interesting to see how this compares to the more gossipy Fire and Fury, from earlier this year.

But let’s not get too carried away with any possible consequences just yet. This, from The Onion, sums things up nicely.

Trump disapproval rating reaches all-time none of this matters
Offering an overview of Americans’ opinions of the commander in chief’s job performance, a new poll released Friday indicated that President Trump’s disapproval rating had reached an all-time none of this matters. The report, released by who really cares which of the utterly useless polling firms and corroborated by several leading increasingly feckless news organizations, confirmed that well over half of those surveyed for really no goddamn reason. In addition, the poll found strong support for who gives a shit, it’s just a bunch of fucking numbers. … At press time, a new poll had found that President Trump’s disapproval rating was now at, Jesus Christ, a sizable portion of the country supports and has always supported an openly white supremacist president and the party he leads, and a bunch of goddamn numerical ratings aren’t going to do a fucking thing to change that.

Update 06/09/2018: On the back of the Washington Post’s launch of Bob Woodward’s book, the New York Times have published an anonymous editorial from a senior official in the Whitehouse that could be seen to corroborate it, reassuring us there are ‘adults in the room’.

I am part of the resistance inside the Trump Administration
I work for the president but like-minded colleagues and I have vowed to thwart parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations.

And the race is on to find out who wrote that.

Who is the Donald Trump staffer who penned the New York Times anonymous op-ed?
Within minutes of it being published online, text alerts were buzzing on phones across Washington DC, as insiders, outsiders, reporters, and everyone else tried to answer one question: Who was the anonymous author?

Back to school

If you work in schools I’m sure it feels like September comes round quicker every year. We were just starting to finally relax and unwind and before you know it we’re back, reading things like this.

Dozens of secondary schools exclude at least 20% of pupils
A spokesman for the trust said it had taken over “some of the toughest schools in England” and repeatedly turned around their performance. He said that in many cases, the schools it had taken over had previously been excluding high numbers of children informally, meaning the increase in the number of official exclusions was misleading.

The Guardian view on education: some things money should not buy
These figures point up a general hollowing out of trust in the state system, which the introduction of competition both reflected and greatly exacerbated. Catchment areas operate as a kind of pre-exclusion mechanism, which keeps poorer children out of good schools just as surely as later exclusions can expel them. In all this, both schools and parents are responding to the logic, and the incentives, of a system predicated on competition as a zero-sum game. We are all poorer as a result.

But cheer up, we’re not the only ones feeling this way. Some of the great artists have identified the same issues.

An art history of back to school
Ever since I published ‘An art history of school inspections’ a few years ago, studying the way that art has portrayed schools has been somewhat of a hobby of mine. In this post, I’ll take you through the ways that artists throughout time have interpreted that key moment in a teacher’s year: going back to school.

back-to-school-2

The first day back has finally arrived in Benjamin West’s ‘These Are the New Guys’ (1776), which depicts the moment when the school’s new staff members are introduced in the first staff meeting, and the entire faculty stare back at them. The new staff members hang their heads and blush as every current member of staff looks at them, some with a sense of envy at their youth, and some with a sense of pity at what these new guys have let themselves in for.

So how do you combat the end of holiday blues and keep that vibe of novelty and freedom going? Suggestions here include joining a club, starting a new hobby, changing your commute. I liked number 7.

Sad summer’s over? 18 ways to keep the health, humour and happiness of your holiday alive
7 Buy a carafe. No, seriously. The best €3 I ever spent went on a little glass carafe that says “quarto litro” at its neck, just like the ones in which the cheapest wine is served in my favourite holiday trattoria. Back home, it encourages restraint on the wine front, while adding ceremony.

back-to-school-3

Are you reading this properly?

Yes, I read my e-mail on my phone. And yes, I read the news on my tablet, where I found these two cheery articles from the Guardian.

Skim reading is the new normal. The effect on society is profound
The possibility that critical analysis, empathy and other deep reading processes could become the unintended “collateral damage” of our digital culture is not a simple binary issue about print vs digital reading. It is about how we all have begun to read on any medium and how that changes not only what we read, but also the purposes for why we read. Nor is it only about the young. The subtle atrophy of critical analysis and empathy affects us all. It affects our ability to navigate a constant bombardment of information. It incentivizes a retreat to the most familiar silos of unchecked information, which require and receive no analysis, leaving us susceptible to false information and demagoguery.

Alan Rusbridger: who broke the news?
If journalists cannot agree on a common idea of the public interest – of the public service we claim to be providing – then it complicates the defence of what we do. And in an age of horizontal free mass media, it is even more important for us to be able to define and declare our values, our purpose – and our independence. Which includes independence from the state.

But five years after the Snowden revelations, it is now apparent that states themselves are struggling with the digital disruption that first tore through the established media and has now reshaped politics. The digital giants have not only unleashed information chaos – they have, in the blink of an eye, become arguably the most powerful organisations the world has ever seen.

Update 04/09/2018: I’ve just found another article on a similar theme that I’ll tack on to the end of this post, about watching less and reading more.

Why everyone should watch less news
While research has shown that visually shocking and upsetting news can contribute to anxiety, sleeping trouble, raise cortisol levels and even trigger PTSD symptoms, a University of Sussex study found that just six minutes reading a book can reduce stress levels up to 68%. A study done by former journalist turned positive psychology researcher Michelle Geilan found that watching just a few minutes of negative news in the morning increases the chances of viewers reporting having had a bad day by 27%, while Barnes and Noble just reported soaring sales for books that help people deal with anxiety and find happiness. Life Time Fitness, a gym chain with locations in 27 states, recently decided that tuning their TVs to FOX News and CNN was antithetical to their mission of making people healthier, so they’ve banned the news from the gym.

Send a smile

Maybe it’s an age thing, maybe I’m just a snob, but I’m still reluctant to include emojis in the texts and messages I write. They’re curious things, though.

Emoji, part 1: in the beginning
Sex! Con­flict! In­ter­na­tional stand­ards bod­ies! The brief his­tory of emoji is far more in­ter­est­ing than it has any right to be, and over the next few months I’ll be tak­ing a look at where the world’s new­est lan­guage came from, how it works and where it’s go­ing.

It star­ted with a heart.

What comes to my mind first, though, is the smiley face. Where did that come from? Read on.

How the smiley face became a counter-cultural symbol
The yellow smiley face as we know it has been around for over half a century, but where did it come from? And how does it continue to grin when the general consensus says there isn’t much to smile about these days? Here, we trace the origins of the iconic graphic, from its corporate beginnings to its counter-cultural adoption.

Can I have a word, you guys?

I hate that cliché about people from Yorkshire ‘saying what they mean and meaning what they say’. Words are rarely that straightforward or unambiguous.

This is how tiny changes in words you hear impacts your thinking
One example Lakoff mentions in his book is George W. Bush’s usage of the phrase “tax relief” on the day he arrived in the White House. Consider the framing around the word “relief.”

Lakoff writes: For there to be relief, there must be an affliction, an afflicted party, and a reliever who removes the affliction and is therefore a hero. And if people try to stop the hero, those people are villains for trying to prevent relief. When the word tax is added to relief, the result is a metaphor: Taxation is an affliction. And the person who takes it away is a hero, and anyone who tries to stop him is a bad guy. This is a frame. It is made up of ideas, like affliction and hero.

The problem with ‘Hey guys’
There are, of course, plenty of people—including many women—who have no problem being addressed as “guys,” think the word has evolved to be entirely gender-neutral, and don’t see a reason to change their usage. But others aren’t so sure. “I think there’s a really serious and welcome reconception of gender lines and relationships between sex and gender going on,” says John McWhorter, who teaches linguistics at Columbia University and has written several books about language. He says “something has crested in particular over about the past 10 years”—something that has people examining their everyday communications.

Too much screen time, or too many screens?

New research has been published on how teenagers and parents feel about the amount of time they’re on their devices.

How teens and parents navigate screen time and device distractions
Amid roiling debates about the impact of screen time on teenagers, roughly half of those ages 13 to 17 are themselves worried they spend too much time on their cellphones. Some 52% of U.S. teens report taking steps to cut back on their mobile phone use, and similar shares have tried to limit their use of social media (57%) or video games (58%), a new Pew Research Center survey finds. […]

Parents, too, are anxious about the effects of screen time on their children, a separate survey shows. Roughly two-thirds of parents say they are concerned about their teen spending too much time in front of screens, and 57% report setting screen time restrictions for their teen in one way or another.

It’s not just a problem for the teenagers, though.

At the same time, some parents of teens admit they also struggle with the allure of screens: 36% say they themselves spend too much time on their cellphone. And 51% of teens say they often or sometimes find their parent or caregiver to be distracted by their own cellphone when they are trying to have a conversation with them.

Additionally, 15% of parents say they often lose focus at work because they are distracted by their phone. That is nearly double the share of teens (8%) who say they often lose focus in school due to their own cellphones.

Of course, it wasn’t always like this.

How the shared family computer protected us from our worst selves
Long before phone addiction panic gripped the masses and before screen time became a facet of our wellness and digital detoxes, there was one good and wise piece of technology that served our families. Maybe it was in the family room or in the kitchen. It could have been a Mac or PC. Chances are it had a totally mesmerizing screensaver. It was the shared family desktop.

A very interesting account of what it was like to be a child in the 90s, when all this first started.

At the time, bringing a single computer into the home was a harbinger of progress that many didn’t feel ready for. Thirty years later, the idea of having only one shared device with internet access might as well be primordial. How did that work, exactly? Well, it wasn’t completely without its challenges. Mapping out uninterrupted computer time was maddeningly tricky, and privacy was basically nonexistent. You risked parental fury if a virus shut the computer down because of a visit to a risky site. Space on the hard drive was at a premium, and the computer chair was inevitably among the most uncomfortable seats in the house. Having such a valuable resource with finite availability and keeping it in a communal space required cooperation and compromise from everyone involved.

As much as we might like, we can’t go back to those times. Though there are signs that things might change.

Logged off: meet the teens who refuse to use social media
But when you are from a digitally native generation, quitting social media can feel like joining a monastery. Amanuel was recently asked by co-workers if she had Snapchat. “I said no,” Amanuel remembers, “and I instantly heard, like, gasps. It was like I’d revealed something disgusting.” She explained that she did have a Snapchat handle, but never used it. “Relief came out of their eyes! It was really weird.”