Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Suffer the little children

The book has been linked to at least three deaths, and details how to discipline children through such methods as switching babies as young as four months (using ‘a twelve-inch long, one-eighth-inch diameter sprig from a willow tree’), whipping, pulling their hair while breastfeeding, and striking with a rod, which the authors suggest should be fashioned from a quarter-inch plastic plumbing tube. The rod betrays the biblical inspiration of the method, which was devised by evangelical pastor Michael Pearl and his wife Debi. Cited in proceedings against parents guilty of murder and the subject of several petitions – including one directed at Amazon.com – attempting to limit its circulation, the book is currently available for general loan through the Auckland Libraries system.

To Train Up a Child was first published in 1994, but the library stocks the 2011 edition, so the acquisition must be quite recent. Certainly more recent than the Crimes (Substituted Section 59) Amendment Act 2007. The bill – which removed the defence of ‘reasonable force’ for parents charged with assaulting their children – was passed by overwhelming majority, with opposition outside of Parliament coming from extreme conservative and Christian fringes. Nonetheless, the tension surrounding it was significant, as I witnessed in Autumn of that year when walking past protesters marching on Parliament for the right to continue beating their children, many of whom were also in attendance.

In other words, at the time of its acquisition by Auckland Libraries, the book described practices that were already illegal in New Zealand, having been dragged outside of the grey area that existed before the amendment to the Crimes Act (at least net of police discretion). Indeed, many of them would have been illegal before 2007 as well. Yet the book was acquired and, following protest and a petition by Eileen Joy, the library has so far refused to withdraw it.

In a statement, Regional Collections Manager Louise LaHatte acknowledges that ‘book is divisive and people may find its content offensive’, but cites the principle of the Library and Information Association of New Zealand Aotearoa (LIANZA) stating that
libraries, and particularly public libraries, are prime agencies for the dissemination of information. Librarians have a duty to acquire, organise, and provide access to information freely to the communities they serve.
To Train Up a Child – the statement goes on to note – has not been banned by the Office of Film and Literature Classification. The library will abide by its decisions, but not bow to public pressure.

Which is all very well. Even reassuring, to a point, seeing as I would hate for a conservative Christian group to start a petition for the removal from public collections of the works of the the Marquis de Sade (at least one of which is listed in the Auckland Libraries Catalogue as ‘Indecent unless its circulation is restricted to psychologists or psychiatrists or any adult bona fide student of literature or philosophy’, as per its censorship classification).

However, it seems logical to ask: why was the book acquired in the first place? Did a collections librarian order it by mistake, along with other parenting books? It is catalogued under 284.845, which if I know my Dewey is Christian parenting, so they must have had some idea of the genre. Did a patron request it, then, and did the request override concerns that the library might have had due to the principle of facilitating the free access to information?

Even this best-case scenario elicits more questions: what if our hypothetical patron had requested an as-yet-unclassified book advocating for racial segregation or gender-based discrimination? And yes, I know, most library systems in New Zealand stock Mein Kampf, but we are not talking about a work of historical interest. To Train Up a Child is a guide to child abuse. It has generated some controversy, but it has very limited value as an object of sociological or historical study. Besides, it is catalogued as a parenting aid, albeit of a religious nature. The book is simply meant to do what it says on the cover, and on the label beside its shelf.

Image from the Family First website
Forget about censorship and whether or not the book should be withdrawn from the Auckland Libraries network. Think instead about the shocking levels of child abuse and domestic violence in New Zealand, and consider the images it conjures up: the stereotypes about violence within Māori homes or poor families, versus the right to strike your child ‘as part of good parental correction’. The march I saw in Wellington was white, affluent, Christian. It was the respectable face of a social scourge. So too is the image of a smiling blond boy on the cover of To Train Up a Child soft and reassuring. This, I suspect, is the reason why the Auckland City Library found itself in possession of a book that promotes switching a four month old baby with the sprig of a willow tree. It forgot that it was violence, because we have not yet learned to accept that violence comes with that face.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Tokyo as you've never seen it before

The Tokyo Tower Gigapixel Panorama is a thing to be admired, to marvel at. From a single vantage point, the viewer is able to enjoy a 360-degree view of the Tokyo cityscape, with full tilting and rotation: you can look up at the sky or down at your feet, on the platform at the top of the tower from which the photograph was taken. Although ‘photograph’ is a grossly inadequate descriptor. The panorama is a composite of thousands of individual photographs. What is truly astonishing, however, is its resolution: the image is 600,000 pixels wide and consists of 150 gigapixels in total. If these numbers do not make sense to you, what they mean in practice is that you can zoom in without appreciable loss of detail on any single focal point, looking through windows and reading shop signs or the number plates of cars.

The effect is a kind of vertigo. This is the world at a resolution greater than 1:1, a world that we could not possibly experience through our senses. It is like looking at the whole of humanity through a microscope and still seeing a coherent picture

The Tokyo Tower project is part of a series called 360 Cities which includes two more 150-gigapixel images (one set in London, the other a different view of Tokyo) and a series of panoramas at a lower resolution from various world locations. In time, we could expect these ultra-high definition images to become more common, just as the detailed aerial mapping of urban centres on Google Maps was initially limited to select American cities, and now includes most towns in the West with a population over a few thousand.

The hard limits on these projects are computing power and the physical capacity of storage media and servers, both of which multiply at rates that are well-known. So all that remains are the cultural and social limits of our desire to see the world represented in this hyper-detailed way. But these too are fragile barriers, always ready to be pushed back.

Consider how easy it was for Google to introduce its Street View service, of which everyone could see the practicality, but also the glaring Orwellian implications (it took some time for the company to be persuaded by privacy regulators to blur faces and car plate numbers). You may have even seen one of those dystopian Google vans mounted with dozens of cameras drive slowly through your suburb, as I have.

Street View is utterly normalised now. It is but one in a vast array of mapping tools that help us navigate our cities and occasionally explore distant ones, or return to childhood neighbourhoods. It has even spawned its own subculture of virtual explorers who travel in Street View and document strange events which Google’s vans photographed but no-one actually saw or noticed (Simon Sellars has written beautifully about all this). Here, more than with Orwell, the association is with Hitchcock, and perhaps the Tokyo panorama, too, is a vast rear window waiting to be pored over in search of evidence of a crime.

Jeff Martin of 360 Cities has produced another fascinating ultra-high resolution picture, this time of an interior. It is the main room of the Strahov monastery library in Prague, Czech Republic, and at 40 gygapixels it is billed as the largest – that is to say, most detailed – indoor picture ever produced. Like the Tokyo panorama, it’s a wonderful object to play with and just as vertigo-inducing, as rapid, dramatic increases in the level of magnification never result in a grainy or blurry picture. It is as if your eyes re-adjusted to an entirely different environment every time the image is refreshed.

There is, besides, genuine pleasure to be had in luxuriating over the intricate detail of the gilded mouldings. Then there is the wall-to-wall display of books. Of these you can admire the leather-bound spines and read the titles, but no more. The very objects that the room is designed to hold and preserve are off limits to the camera, therefore to our virtual presence. They are like buildings we can only view from the outside, their curtains drawn.

The detail may seem insignificant – even obvious – except ultra-high definition photography is an index of the will to knowledge of our epoch. The limits of this knowledge, when we encounter them, serve as pointed, ironic reminders of the limits of our culture.

We have invented the means of transporting vision, so that wherever you may live, you can sit in the main room of a late medieval Czech monastery library and explore it inch by inch – save for the fact that you cannot open or access any of the thousands of books on its shelves. At least for now. But you can always plot the next step. You can already anticipate the future functionality, and how tapping on one of the spines will call up the contents of the relevant book, either in the form of digitised text or as a series of scanned images that bring to life each convolution of the script and the minute texture of the paper. This is technically achievable, therefore culturally desirable. Someone will see to it eventually.

To have perfect knowledge of this world as a mosaic of static images of virtually infinite resolution is ironic in another respect: for this vast archive of the immediate present sets store in political and social stasis – or anything that will prevent the pictures from changing.

Monday, March 16, 2015

On caring about surveillance

I have little patience for the argument that people don’t care about mass surveillance because they live in a state of trusting apathy. It strikes me as a moralistic stance that fails to take into account how complex the problem is, the layers of secrecy and obfuscation that surround it and – most importantly – how removed from our everyday experience and capacity for political intervention the forces that wield this power are.

In New Zealand, we know that the country has been a member of Five Eyes through successive governments, left and right, always doing what was asked of us by far more powerful allies. Thus the act of exercising one’s voting franchise against the current government at the last election wouldn’t have radically shifted the problem. Besides, voting is a blunt instrument, as each party represents a wider range of positions than a stance on surveillance alone. The question then becomes not just if you care but if you care enough to make the issue the principal consideration behind your voting choice. (The same applies to dirty politics: maybe it’s not that people didn’t care: it’s that not enough people cared enough, or weren’t presented with an alternative that invested their vote with the possibility of change.)

From the point of view of political action, campaigning about such issues almost always entails a convergence of strategy and tactics. It is through the form that the struggle takes – think the Springbok Tour protests – that the demand for people to make a stand is articulated and the means of making a stand is provided. Conversely, absent an organised political movement, how can we even tell if people care?

We’re nowhere near organised enough yet. And because we’re not, the field is left to the actors who have turned not caring into their banner. Like the guffawing and pretend-snoring Mike Hosking and the rest of the happy crew at Newstalk ZB, as documented this week by Media Watch. Or the New Zealand Listener, in an editorial charging Nicky Hager with trying either to influence a by-election in Northland or to profit from it, and arguing that we spy on our Pacific neighbours for their own good. Or Martin Van Beynen, who actually starts his opinion piece in Saturday’s The Press with the words ‘I know I should care’, and concludes a ramble on why the latest revelations don’t perturb him with the following thought:
I hardly ever go to the theatre or the orchestra but I think it's healthy we have them. In the same way the Hagers of this world serve a valuable end.
Thus investigative journalism on matters that are fundamental to the functioning of our democracy is reduced to the status of a cultural pastime by someone who doesn’t care much for culture anyway. Merry Christmas.

Occasionally, however, a shaft of light shines through a crack you didn’t know existed. Thus it happened that the otherwise exuberantly authoritarian David Farrar wrote a brief post on Kiwiblog about Customs applying for the right to force people they don't like the look of to disclose passwords for their electronic devices. The post, entitled Just no, reads as follows:
No, no and no.
This concise editorial opinion was followed by a small sample of the seething humanity that frequents Kiwiblog, all variously echoing their thought leader amidst cries of “no!” and lamentations on the loss of personal and business liberty. A couple of wry contributors did venture to ask what happened to the maxim ‘those who have nothing to hide, have nothing to fear’ so dear to the Right, but just two comments out of 59 actually expressed approval for the measure. This one:
I would feel comfortable giving my password to customs. All our emails, texts etc are trawled through by various governments to protect us from terrorists. I don’t think it is unreasonable to require people give access to their devices when they travel to check that they do not have any photos of child porn or plans of weapons of mass destruction.
And this one:
If something like this means that even one child abuser or scammer is identified and stopped then so be it. I don’t particularly want to hand over my email password at the border but I don’t have anything to hide either.
Despairing as they may read, these are the only comments featuring consistency or logic, as measured against the trust that Farrar and his readers have always pledged to the institutions ostensibly in charge of our national security.

The only thing that distinguishes a Customs officer going through the contents of your electronic device from one our spies – or, for the more credulous, an allied agency – doing the same, is that the Customs officer does it in front of you and you can see what they’re actually doing. In this respect, having one’s device searched at the border is merely a dramatisation of the interception that goes on all the time in a less personal but also much more efficient fashion, linking your communications with the communications of everybody else in search of patterns of thought and behaviour.

For once, then, the comments to Kiwiblog are interesting and relevant. Not only because they feature the immortal phrase ‘cultural Marxism has turned us into a nation of consumers and shoppers,’ but because in the jumble of untenable statements we might find contradictions to be exploited and spaces to occupy for political intervention.

Far from being indifferent, I believe that many if not most people, like Martin Van Beynen, know they should care – they’re just not sure how. 

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The art of looking

Observe this picture for a few seconds. Then read on.

When I first saw Henri Cartier-Bresson’s ‘Resistance on the banks of the Rhine’, at an exhibition in 1995, I found it very unsettling without being able to tell why. It can’t have been the body of the dead partisan, as the same exhibition contained far more graphic and heart-rending pictures from the darkest days in European history. At the end of our visit we purchased the catalogue and I figured it out some time later. It was the composition, which in turn may have had something to do with the way we read pictures.

I can’t remember if John Boardman mentions this, but I’ve heard Marian Maguire explain it in her talks: in ancient Greek black- and red-figure pottery, the figures on the left of the picture almost always hold the power. If the scene depicts a battle, it is understood that they will prevail even though the outcome may appear uncertain at the moment in which the action is captured.

Achilles Slays Penthesilea

Now I know that there is a theory, although I don’t know how well supported it is, and I’m wary of the certainties of psychologists and cognitive scientists. It says that literate peoples produce and read pictures the same way they read their script. So, in the case of ancient Greeks (and ours), from left to right. This is the direction in which pictures flow: energy (therefore power and ascendancy, in the Greek example), movement and time all proceed from left to right. The Bayeux Tapestry and Giotto’s frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel were expected to be read in that way, even by non-literate spectators. More interestingly perhaps, the Renaissance genre of continuous narrative represented temporal movement within a single pictorial frame, also from left to right, as in this painting by Jacopino di Francesco which bundles the Nativity with the Adoration of the Magi, and Mary and her baby appear twice.

(I received help on Twitter to find these examples: credit for this one goes to @cathyby)

Or Masaccio’s The Tribute Money, in which Saint Peter appears three times.

(h/t:  ‏@Alistair_Murray)
Or these two scenes from the Life of St Francis by Benozzo Gozzoli.

(h/t:  ‏@dylanhorrocks)
There are the occasional exceptions, like Piero Di Cosimo’s Misfortunes of Silenus (that you can view enlarged here), in which the action begins in the middle,

(h/t: @JCE_PC)
or the classic theme of the ascension, in which the movement is upwards for obvious reasons. This is Giotto’s Ascension of St Francis.

(h/t: @lilith_grace)
But generally paintings in Western art in which a temporal progression existed have displayed this progression from left to right, most emphatically perhaps in triptychs up to the present day. A few people pointed me to Frederick McCubbin’s The Pioneer, so I’m going to include that.

(h/t @bonniej1, @gj_robins)
I’m sorry if this is sounding obvious to most of you. I hadn’t really consciously registered this it until I saw that photograph by Cartier-Bresson. Here it is again.

I think the reason why I find it so unsettling is that my eyes cannot come to a resting place. The ingrained left-to-right pull, reinforced by the lines traced by the bridge, forces me to look to the right. But in the bottom-left there is a body, and I want to look at that too for I am a human being and humanity is what I look for in most pictures. However, once I’ve looked at the body I can’t just stop there. The other reflex kicks back in, pushing me towards the right edge of the photograph again, and so on. However, if I flip the image

I don’t get that effect at all. Now the human subject is where my eyes come to a rest. The photograph has become more mournful than tragic, more melancholic than unsettling.

The theory also says that there are cultures that read and organise pictures in different ways. According to psychologist Lera Boroditsky, when experimental subjects are asked to arrange a shuffled bundle of photographs of a certain event into the correct temporal sequence
English speakers arrange time from left to right. Hebrew speakers do it from right to left (because Hebrew is written from right to left). […] In Mandarin, the future can be below and the past above. In Aymara, spoken in South America, the future is behind and the past in front.

I don’t know what this tells us – again, I am suspicious of the certainties of people who study the mind across different cultures – but I may have stumbled into my own supporting example, about 15 years after seeing the photograph by Cartier-Bresson. It comes from the Japanese manga Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms by Fumiyo Kōno, which is set in Hiroshima ten years after the bombing. In one scene, two lovers kiss on a bridge, but they are haunted by the memory of the bodies that once floated in the water below.

It’s a picture that had the identical unsettling effect on me as Cartier-Bresson's: again my eyes cannot come to a resting place, and keep going from the two lovers to the top right corner across the bridge and back again. However, this time I wonder if a native Japanese reader would effectively be looking at a mirror image. This would still be horrific, but devoid of the visual tension and the sense of being pulled concurrently into two directions - a not insignificant difference, in terms of the psychological effect and ultimately the meaning of the artwork.

I wonder, then, if along with a history of seeing we could talk of an art of looking: that is to say, a set of acquired techniques for making sense of the coded images of the culture in which we happen grow up. And, if so, whether we should think more deeply about intersemiotics and visual translation, even if it means nothing more than cultivating a measure of doubt in the universal appeal of images, and in our own capacity to make sense of them all.

Monday, March 2, 2015

The electric father

Professor Shiba knew that some day he might be captured by the Yamatais – he, who alone knew the secrets of the ancient monster race that would soon rise up to conquer the world. So he patiently stored himself in a data bank inside a secret underground base. When the day came and his murder was consummated, the giant computer contacted his son, Hiroshi, to whom he planned to entrust the fight against the Yamatais.
‘I’m sorry if I frightened you. This isn’t me. I stored in this computer everything I know.’
Written by Go Nagai and drawn by Tatsuya Yasuda, Kotetsu Jeeg was first published as a manga in 1975, then turned into a 46-episode anime series in the same year. It is the earliest example I’ve been able to find of mind uploading in popular fiction. As a matter of fact, I saw it as a child when the series – which like many other robot-based ones was more popular in Italy than just about anywhere else, including Japan – was dubbed and televised locally. I remember the professor well.

There may be earlier examples that I missed in my research. Otherwise, I find it fitting that the first uploaded mind to appear on a screen was that of a father, for the mind uploading project is a very male-dominated idea and is strongly linked to the notion of fatherhood. Both in that it has many fathers (Moravec, Kurzweil, Vinge, Wiener, Minsky, Gates, Bell) but especially because one of its most popular and engaging proponents – Ray Kurzweil – for some time has insisted that he doesn’t want to use this invention merely to prolong the lives of the currently living. He wants to use it to bring back his father, who has been dead for forty-five years.

As I've discussed here before, mind-uploading is predicated on the claim that computers will some day be so powerful as to be able to ‘map’ the neural structure of the brain and replicate its every function. This capacity on the part of our machines is usually referred to as the singularity, to signify the genie-out-of-a-bottle moment when humanity creates a tool capable of matching and soon thereafter surpassing human intelligence. Scientists and futurologists are divided on the exact date of this watershed. As someone has noted, however, most forecasts happen to fall just within the projected lifetime of the person in charge of the forecasting. In his 1988 book Mind Children, for instance, Hans Moravec set the date for 2030, by which time – if he’s still alive – he will be 82.

This is a telling aspect of the fantasy: for what better time could there be to have your store of memory and capacity for reasoning transferred outside the body than when that same body has started to become a painful burden?

Kurzweil is unusual, though, in that his plan is not just of have his mind faithfully scanned and copied, as in the traditional formulation of this idea. He wants to give new life to his father, too. However, he doesn’t keep his brain in a jar. All he has are memories and documents. So he needs to take a different route. He must feed into the machine the essence of his father as a narrative construct.

Some years ago, when I wrote here for the first time about my late father, I noted that the lack of a trail of personal documents, of writings and electronic recordings, of minutes of his deliberations – as well as of the kind of personal, intimate electronic archive that a person of my generation might build – made his life a difficult object of memory for our digital age. Kurzweil may be faced with a similar problem with regard to his father, a musician and businessman who probably left a more highly compatible account of himself than mine did, but who nonetheless died in 1970, many years before personal computers, digital photography and portable devices of ubiquitous reach. The translation of that likely very sparse, low-tech archive into software is therefore more philosophical than technical. It requires advanced psychology as opposed to brute computational force.

Of his proposed virtual avatar, Kurzweil has said this:
You can certainly argue that, philosophically, that is not your father. That [it] is a replica, but I can actually make a strong case that it would be more like my father than my father would be, were he to live.
There is an echo of the words of Professor Shiba (‘this isn’t me’) in Kurzweil’s admission that in fundamental ways his father is not going to come back, but ultimately it, the software, must be allowed to become something more real. Not a mere simulation, but a new release. A better version.

I am horrified by some of Kurzweil’s ideas, and find the prospect of our technocrats being able to control their wealth after death frankly obscene, but I also have some sympathy for him: all he really wants is to be able to speak with his father again. And he might, some day, so long as when the time comes he maintains the subjective belief that whatever version of Eliza is talking back to him really is Fredric Kurzweil.

Belief in ghosts dies hard, and one can always find new cloth in which to drape old superstitions. If you don’t think too much about it, the electric father is a pleasing fantasy. He sits somewhere, in a secret laboratory or a computer room, where you might access him on your own terms. He’ll help you to fight an army of ancient monsters, or just have conversations with you that you didn’t make time for when he was alive.