Ricardo Miranda Zúñiga

Structural Patterns

Reflections on Art, Technology and Society

Archive for the ‘critical_perspectives’ Category

Reading: The Making of the Indebted Man (note 2)

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Quotes from chapter 2 The Genealogy of Debt and the Debtor

For Nietzsche, making a memory for man being able “to have […] control over the future,” “to view the future as the present and anticipate it,” so that he is answerable for his own future.
Pg. 45

The Economy as Process of Subjectivation
It seems to me that my friends in cognitive capitalism are mistaken when they make “knowledge” the origin of valorization and exploitation. There is nothing new in the fact that science, skills, and technological and organizational innovations represent the productive forces of capital – Marx already understood as much in the mid-19th century.

What is required and cuts across the economy and modern-day society, is not knowledge but the injunction to become an economic “subject” (“human capital,” “entrepreneur of the self”), an injunction that concerns just as much the unemployed as the user of public services, the consumer, the most “modest” of workers, the poorest, or the “migrant.”
Pg. 50-51

If capitalists spend little time worrying about investing in a more than improbable – always heralded but never realized – “knowledge society,” they are, on the other hand, cruelly inflexible when forcing the governed to take on all the economic risks and damage the capitalists themselves have created.
Pg. 52

The Two Marxes
A Very Nietzschean Marx
But this abolition of estrangement, this return of man to himself and therefore to other men is only an appearance; the self-estrangement, the dehumanization, is all the more infamous and extreme because its element is no longer commodity, metal, paper, but man’s moral existence, man’s social existence, the inmost depths of his heart, and because under the appearance of man’s trust in man it is the height of distrust and complete estrangement.
Pg. 56

The trust that credit exploits has nothing to do with the belief in new possibilities in life and, thus, in some noble sentiment toward oneself, others, and the world. It is limited to a trust in solvency and makes solvency the content and measure of the ethical relationship.
Pg. 58

In its financial form, capital accumulated in banks appears as “capital in general,” a simple abstraction. But it is a powerful abstraction, since capital emerges as “autonomous value,” “independent” of its actualization in a particular sphere; it exists as an “undifferentiated” force capable of every form of actualization. It thus appears as the power to prescribe and anticipate future value, as a power of destruction/creation.
Pg. 63

  • These brings to mind Robinhood’s recent offer to “sweep in” uninvested money sitting in my account so that it can earn interest. Robinhood has partnered with banks to play with people’s money and make more money…

The concentration of capital and the growth of their turnover is radically changing the significance of the banks. Scattered capitalists are transformed into a single collective. The “coherence” and strategies are those of the M-Mlogic, which by making money from money also reveals its “irrationality.” The latter materializes in every “liberal” period and leads almost automatically to the most sever crises, each time clearing the way for authoritarian politics (which happened with the First World War and fascism.)
Pg. 65

“We live forward but think backward” – William James. To live forward means “to believe in the world and in the new possibilities of life” it encompasses, says Deleuze. Faith and trust are a force – joyous and confident – that gives one a “generous strength.”
Pg. 69

…In order to realize the power to act, we need to believe (trust) in the “moving present,” the present as possibility, that is, in the world and the new possibilities of life that it holds. The power to act is subordinate to an existential affirmation, to a “yes” that expresses a self-positioning. It presupposes hope and faith, anticipating what has not yet come to pass, making the impossible possible.
Pg. 71

For finance, the future is a mere forecast of current domination and exploitation. But if a critical threshold of uncertainty with regard to future of exploitation and domination is passed, the present, emptied of its possibilities, collapses. The crisis is then a crisis of time from which emerges a time of political and social creation, which finance can only endeavor to destroy. This is exactly our present situation. The logic of debt is stifling our possibilities for action.
Pg. 71

The pain of a debtor is interiorized, responsibility for the debt becomes a feeling of guilt. Pg. 78

From the far reaches of the empire the Vikings with their ships and the Hungarians with their horses (mobility, migratory, nomadic, and warrior flows whose power was greater than the peasants’) descended, pillaging villages, tombs and monasteries… they made economic investments through destruction… The less mobile flow (the peasants) became subordinate to the nomadic and mobile flow (the barbarian warriors). The “barbarian flows were deterritorialized as well as deterritorializing.”
Pg. 82

  • Today, young professionals who are considered ambitious move about the globe, hopping from opportunity to better opportunity. They are deterritorialize and deterritorializing by their disinterest in establishing or maintaining roots and building community. They leave small towns to the university and then the metropolis. Major cities are populated by transient citizens. Meanwhile the small cities and towns are abandoned, ghost towns populated by senior citizens.

The flow of financing that is, money is capital, is a mutant power, a creative flow, a set of “sign powers,” because it engages the future, manifests a force of prescription, and constitutes a power of destruction/creation that anticipates that which is not yet present. Financing flows are a deterritorialized and deterritorializing power, a power that does not emerge after the economic, but is imminent to it. They affect possibilities and their actualization.
The substance of money is capital is time, but less labor time than time is the possibility of choice, decision, and control, in other words, the power to destroy/create social forms of exploitation and subjection.
Pg. 85

Written by ricardo

August 12th, 2022 at 2:22 pm

Reading: The Making of the Indebted Man (note 1)

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I’ve been reading Maurizio Lazzarato’s 2011 book The Making of the Indebted Man translated to English and published by semiotext(e) in 2012. If some of the promises from the last two years – to excuse student debt, to acknowledge institutionalized racism as a national level, I feel that we have come a long way over the last 10 years and since the last financial disaster in considering how the system is rigged and how to begin to chip at it, to create a more equitable society. Perhaps this is too hopeful.

Lazzarato is clear and direct and presents a rich set of resources for anyone looking to jump into researching a history of debt and our current financial mechanisms. Many of his ideas and critiques could easily be applied to more recent altcoins and fintech tools. I’m going to copy below a few sequences that strongly stand out to me, mostly for my own notes, but perhaps others will be interested…

From the Forward

Through readings of Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morality and Marx’s theory of money, it will help us revive two hypotheses. The first, that the paradigm of the social lies not in exchange (economic and/or symbolic) but in credit. There is no equality (of exchange) underlying social relations, but rather as asymmetry of debt/credit, which precedes historically and theoretically, that of production and wage labor. The second hypothesis, that debt represents an economic relationship inseparable from the production of the debtor subject and their “morality.” The debt economy combines “work on the self” and labor, in its classical sense, such that “ethics” and economics function conjointly. The modern notion of “economy” covers both economic production and the production of subjectivity. Traditional categories rooted in 19th and 20th century revolutions – labor, society, and politics – are now informed and in large measure have been redefined by debt. (Pg. 11)

From Chapter 1 Understanding Debt as the Basis of Social Life

Credit bring us back to a situation characteristic of feudalism, in which a portion of labor is owed in advance, as serf labor, to the feudal lord. – Jean Baudrillard, The System of Objects (pg. 13)

Debt acts as a “capture,” “predation,” and “extraction” machine on the whole of society, as an instrument for macroeconomic prescription and management, and as a mechanism for income redistribution.” (Pg. 29)

This is generally true for any financial mechanism; they are funded by and created for the rich to accumulate greater wealth. Take for example FinTech software from Robinhood to Coinbase to alt coins, the goal of many of these are not to democratize investment, but to break into the pockets of a larger population and use their money.

“We have moved from Fordist regulation, which privileged the industrial and debtor side, to financial regulation, which prioritizes the financial and creditor side.” (Pg. 30)

But debt is a universal power relation, since everyone is included within it. Even those too poor to have access to credit must pay interest to creditors through the reimbursement of public debt; even countries too poor for a Welfare State must repay their debts. (Pg. 32)

Written by ricardo

August 7th, 2022 at 4:29 pm

Chasing Bits a Web Platformer Game

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“Chasing Bits” a Web Platformer that Considers the Pitfalls of Alt Coins

“No Media” is an online exhibition featuring art work entirely made from code. This means no media files – no jpg or gif or png or mp3 or wav or mp4 or webm or any type of self-contained file type. When I was invited to participate in this exhibition, it was a tricky proposition for me as I’m primarily a visual artist who uses software and generally when I code it’s in an environment such as Visual Studio with Unity. My web projects tend to include SVGs created in Illustrator or video or audio files… But I greatly appreciated the invitation and the challenge to work differently. However, I’m not a good coder, generally, I hack things together or review endless tutorials. In grad school at Carnegie Mellon University, I was allowed to enroll in the Computer Science intro to programming undergraduate course. This is a course designed to weed out those who will not go on to become programmers; I lasted three weeks.

I regularly use javascript, the language of the web, I wanted to make something that would be fun for people to interact with and I had been researching digital currencies for the last couple of years for another project. Since I was 11 years old, I’ve loved platformers due to my initiation as Activision’s Pitfall Harry in 1982. So I decided to take Marijn Haverbeke‘s entirely code-based javascript platformer game covered in his book Eloquent Javascript and inject it with a bit of Bitcoin and alt coin content. I feel that the platformer presents the ideal game metaphor for the dreams and pitfalls of alt coins. The game titled Chasing Bits has audio, but it’s the browser’s speech synthesis that reads a hidden text (no media). And there are emojis that may appear to be image files, but are also bits of code. (It’s probably time to add the death emoji.). There is one live data feed – the current value of Bitcoin which you may update throughout the game.

Since web audio generally requires a user event, players must click a button to trigger the browsers reading of the following passage:

What happens when a utopian idea for a decentralized currency gains adoption in the midst of hypercapitalism? Speculative investors looking to get rich quick, loose. The early bird gets the worm, the rest just dig for fools gold. Or perhaps the current value of bitcoin will triple and you head straight to the Cayman Islands to sip on rum and coke as you lazily sway in a hammock between shade and sunlight.

Unfortunately it is 2022, the U.S. government slowed the printing of free money, inflation has risen, uncertainty has set in and the happy go lucky period of Bitcoin and alt coins has taken a pause. Sit tight, wait 10 years and just maybe those Ethereum coins will be worth eighty thousand each! Or perhaps, the Financial Action Task Force may just clamp down and regulate Bitcoin and digital currencies due to money laundering and other criminal use of digital currencies. No one knows what lays ahead. So meanwhile, why not chase those bits…

I can not afford real property, so I buy land in the metaverse. I like going there in the evenings when I sit alone and wonder when others will join. Perhaps I will rent out some space and make more bits. However, I don’t like it when the earth quakes.

As soon as Bitcoin peaks again, I will buy a pig to store clones of all my primary organs, this way I will double my life span and live to a 180 and by then I will own a country in the meta verse and deliver my own currency. My anti gravity suit will keep me looking young. Meanwhile I will continue chasing bits.

Try the Chasing Bits, listen to that audio, check the current value of Bitcoin, I hope you are mildly entertained!

Review of “The Linguistic Errantry”

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The Linguistic Errantry by Tansy Xiao

Imagine an immersive Boschian landscape rich with metaphoric allusions of surveillance and control, such is artist Tansy Xiao’s latest creation. The desktop application “The Linguistic Errantry” puts the user/player in a surreal yellow hued environment populated by singing giraffes, floating goldfish, levitating eggs, flying surveillance cameras and a giant broken egg with octopus tentacles dancing about. In a desert-like setting, enclosed by rock cliffs, Marxist monuments stand erect but their heads are 19th century copper and brass diving helmets. A buddha on lotus monument is surrounded by surveillance monitors that show the world itself as captured by the roving surveillance cameras. This world reflects upon “the totalitarian lockdown in Shanghai.”

“The Linguistic Errantry” is a first person roaming world. Walk past any of the 14 giraffes and you will hear it singing brief notes.

Each giraffe is set to sing a measure constituting 2-4 notes and nonlinguistic lyrics deconstructed from L’Internationale. When two giraffes collide, they adopt each other’s measure to add to their own array. Giraffe 0 as the only exception, is set to speak “Control / Your / Soul’s / Desire / For / Freedom” by default, instead of singing—a propaganda phrase from a government official during the totalitarian lockdown in Shanghai, when the whole country entered an Agambenian “state of exception.” Each word occupies one slot in its array and will be gradually replaced by fragments from L’Internationale as giraffe 0 encounters the others of its kind.

https://www.tansyxiao.com/the-linguistic-errantry

As game engines have become more accessible and adopted by artists to create immersive worlds layered with meaning and cultural critique, it is exciting to see Xiao adopt the game platform to create a powerful metaphoric world that easily stirs investigation and reflection in the viewer. As Xiao further describes “The Linguistic Errantry reimagines the Tower of Babel in a way that manifests the arbitrary nature of history: the consolidation and disintegration of sovereigns, an anticipated revolution to be generated by mere chance, or a parallel universe where nothing ever happens and only entropy reigns supreme.”

Remembering Enrique Bolaños

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The only decent president of Nicaragua in nearly 25 years, Enrique Bolaños died on Monday, June 14th 2021 at the age of 93. My family has been friends with the Bolaños for generations. A few years ago at my Tio Hernaldo Zuniga’s 90th birthday, I had the opportunity to sit and talk with Enrique for an extended period. He was more interested in hearing about me and what I do than talking about himself. As I told him about my creative work and using the internet/web as a creative medium and the classes that I teach, he got very excited to share his latest endeavor. He had been working with a group of assistants to create an online archive regarding Nicaragua’s history. This is an archive of historical documents and accounts, if I recall correctly a compliment and extension to his book The Struggle for Power (2017) that presents a political history of Nicaragua from 1821 to 2007 – ending with his presidency. Enrique described the effort as an online library and indeed named it as such Enrique Bolaños Bibioteca. This online library reflects Enrique’s dedication and love for his country.

As Vice President to the criminal Arnolod Aleman from 1997 to 2002, it was expected that when Enrique Bolaños took over the presidency in 2002, he would merely be a puppet of Aleman. (In Nicaragua, presidents may not serve consecutive terms.) Instead of being a puppet, President Bolaños launched an anticorruption campaign to investigate criminal acts by state employees. In August of 2002, this investigation lead to the conviction of the former president Arnoldo Aleman for fraud, money laundering and misuse of public funds totaling nearly $100 million. Following only six years of a 20 year sentence and largely served as a house arrest, Aleman was pardoned by the far more corrupt dictator Daniel Ortega.

Enrique Bolaños, an incredibly sincere and transparent individual is a surprising persona in the corrupt politics of Nicaragua. His presidency remains a hopeful moment in the country’s recent history as he was nested between a self-serving, obese thief and a maniacal dictator and lunatic vice dictator wife Rosario Murillo. One hopes that a new leader with some of the same qualities as Bolaños will rise to dethrone the Ortega-Murillo regime this election year. Unfortunately, as I write this, those candidates truly challenging the current dictatorship are being arrested.

Written by ricardo

June 20th, 2021 at 8:51 am

The Deficit Myth 001

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I recently finished Stephanie Kelton’s book The Deficit Myth and I’m going to create a series of blog entries considering the material of the book. In doing so, I will liberally be quoting the book as part of my goal is to consider and digest my highlights from the text.

Kelton’s goal is to have us understand Modern Monetary Theory and how if embraced, it can help us create a better society. Kelton asks “What would it look like if the government overcame the deficit myths [the concept of having to maintain a household budget] and started budgeting like a currency issuer instead of pretending that it needs to pay for its spending just like the rest of us?” (pg. 42)

Although I think that we should all read this book (though it can be a bit repetitive), I’m going to copy the main points of the United States federal deficit myths that need to be debunked. These points are in the introduction and are given a chapter each:

First Myth:
The idea that the United States federal government needs to budget like a household is pernicious… “MMT demonstrates that the federal government is not dependent on revenue form taxes or borrowing to finance its spending and that the most important constraint on government spending is inflation.” pg. 9

Second Myth:
“It is possible for the government to spend too much. Deficits can be too big. But evidence of overspending is inflation, and most of the time deficits are too small, not too big.” pg.9

Third Myth:
Deficits will burden the next generation. Ronald Reagan was one of the wort perpetrators of the myth that we would saddle our children with too much debt, because it’s powerful political rhetoric. “As a share of gross domestic product (GDP), the national debt was at its highest – 120% – in the period immediately following WWII. Yet, this was the same period during which the middle class was built, real media family income soared, and the next generation enjoyed a higher standard of living without the added burden of higher tax rates… Increasing the deficit doesn’t make future generations poorer, and reducing the deficit won’t make them any richer.” pg.9

Fourth Myth:
“…deficits are harmful because the crowd out private investment and undermine long-term investment… government deficits eat up some of the dollars that would otherwise have been invested in private sector endeavors that promote long-term prosperity. We will see why the reverse is true – fiscal deficits actually increase private savings – and can easily crowd-in private investments.” pg. 10

Fifth Myth:
“Deficits make the United States dependent on foreigners [China and Japan as they hold large quantities of U.S. debt]… this is a fiction that politicians wittingly or unwittingly propagate, often as an excuse to ignore social programs desperate need of funding. Sometimes this myth has used the metaphor of irresponsibly taken out a foreign credit card. This misses the fact that the dollars aren’t originating from China. They’re coming from the U.S. We’re not borrowing from China so much as we’re supplying China with dollars and then allowing them to trade those dollars in for a safe, interest-bearing asset called a U.S. treasury. There is absolutely nothing risky or pernicious about this. If we wanted to, we could pay off the debt immediately with a simple keystroke.” pg.10

Sixth Myth:
“Entitlements are propelling us toward a long-term fiscal crisis. Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are the supposed culprits… Our government will always be able to meet future obligations because it can never run out of money. The money can always be there. The question is, What will that money buy? Changing demographics and the impacts of climate change are real challenges that could put stress on available resources.” pg.11

Kelton ends the introduction with a call to arms:

“The fact that 21 percent of all children in the United States live in poverty- that’s a crisis. The fact that our infrastructure is graded at a D+ is a crisis. The fact that inequality today stands at levels last seen during America’s Gilded Age is a crisis. The fact that the typical American worker has seen virtually no real wage growth since the 1970s is a crisis. The fact that forty-four million Americans are saddled with $1.7 trillion in student loans debt is a crisis. And the fact that we ultimately won’t be able to ‘afford’ anything at all if we end up exacerbating climate change and destroy the life on this planet is perhaps the biggest crisis of them all.” pg.11

“These are real crises. The national deficit is not a crisis.” pg.12

“THE CRIME OF the tax bill signed by Trump in 2017 is not that it added to the deficit but that it used the deficit to provide help to those who needed it least. It has widened inequality, putting more political and economic power into the hands of the few… We should tax billionaires to rebalance the distribution of wealth and income and to protect the health of our democracy.” pg. 12

As the many citizens of the United States need a financial lifeline from the federal government to help make it through this pandemic, Kelton foresees the stalling of a second stimulus:

“The federal deficit, which was expected to top $1 trillion before the virus became a threat, will likely skyrocket beyond $3 trillion in the months ahead. If history is any lesson, anxiety over rising budget deficits will lead to pressure to reduce fiscal support in order to wrestle deficits lower. That would be an unmitigated disaster. Right now, and in the months ahead, the most fiscally responsible way to manage the crisis is with higher deficit spending.” pg. 13

Internalized Racism

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A week ago, that is the last week of pandemic June 2020, my nearly 12 year old and I biked to Clinton Hill to visit a buddy of his.  The friend’s block in Clinton Hill was having a “stoop day.”  We arrived at the brownstone where his friend lives in Clinton Hill on the edge of Bed-Stuy around 1pm and the next door neighbors had their stoop party rolling.  

The next door neighbors are Black and they were sitting at the bottom of the stoop behind a gate drinking and talking while one man worked the grill.  Parked adjacent to the next door brownstone was a large white SUV with the passenger door open and music playing; it was the sound system for the stoop.  A Brooklyn summer Saturday block party was just getting started. 

My son’s friend and younger brother were outside, and greeted us.  The mom stepped out, we had never met so after brief introductions, I offered to escort the boys to the Christopher “Biggie” Wallace Basketball Courts around the corner.  Between COVID-19 and expected rain, the courts and playground were empty.  The kids threw around a football, kicked a soccer ball and we headed back to their stoop.

The mother invited us to hang out on their stoop.  I took a seat and we chatted as I watched the next door party grow.  With each new arrival, a small explosion of laughter and cheer – a young man with a bottle of Hennessy and plastic cups, a middle-aged woman with beer in hand… it was a multi-generational gathering.  At an apartment building across the street people were setting up tables with food.  I could see that rain was coming, so we didn’t stay long.

On our bike ride back, as my son and I rode next to one another in Prospect Park, he mentioned that his friend (who is White) had said that “those people party all day long.”  He said it in a judgmental manner.  I told him that it’s Saturday and many people work Monday through Friday, so Saturday is a day to party and enjoy family and friends.  I told him that it’s a good thing as I tried to dismiss the judgmental tone.

This immediately made me consider the difference between Black and Latino cultures versus White, particularly WASP culture.  I assume that my son’s judgmental tone was picked up from his friend.  I recalled 15 years back seeing the summer weekend stoop parties along Vanderbilt and reading the stories of the gentrifiers calling the police to shut down those stoop parties as they loudly rolled into the evening.  Now there are no stoop parties along Vanderbilt and nearly no Black people.

Then I thought about my own family in Nicaragua.  On Sundays (or Saturdays), my cousins regularly head over to their parent’s homes with their families and their drink of choice – one cousin adopted Titos a few years ago, others stick to Flor de Caña and uncles tend to elect whiskey or vodka.  The weekend is commonly to gather and enjoy family.  The kids play while the adults talk, drink and listen to music and everyone feasts on carne asada or pollo asado, tortilla, chicharron, tostones…  At the larger family gatherings, it doesn’t always end well, occasionally simmering disagreements explode, words are said, but soon enough everyone will gather again.

When I was very young, my own parents would sometimes throw weekend parties.  It wasn’t every weekend as we did not have much family around, but every few weeks and it was more friends than family.  As I grew older, those parties ended.  My dad worked whenever he could.  If someone called in sick, he’d cover.  He was a BART maintenance employee for 27 years.  There were periods when he’d take a second job or try to run his own janitorial company or even drive to the airport and try to pick up passengers.  It seems to me that when he was younger he enjoyed life a lot more and as he grew older he became more obsessed with amassing money.  Perhaps it was having a family or making sure that all bills were paid off or being comfortable when he retired or he just had a lot of energy and with a family – why not use that energy for financial security…  Whichever it was, my parents were immigrants that adapted to US life and culture, one in which work, not having debt and amassing money is central.  (At least for poor immigrants, commonly, not living with debt is a goal.) However, in the US there are many cultures and amongst them Black and Latino cultures are more likely to maintain the importance of weekend socializing, drinking, music and partying.  Whereas WASP culture is more likely to embrace isolation, the Weekend Edition of the New York Times, reading a novel, exercising in the park, silence and contemplation. And mixed in this is a bit of work – checking emails, checking bank accounts, perhaps moving a bit of money… They are not likely to tolerate loud music and regular weekend parties.

All this said, the reason behind this reflection is my disconcert at my son’s judgmental tone at the idea of people partying all day long and underlying that judgmental tone is a trace of racism. I present two radically different measures of the value of life. One is based on productivity whereas the other on joy. One may find joy through accomplishment, the other finds joy in joy itself. One has a puritanical and protestant root with a moral basis whereas the other has “savage” root with a hedonistic basis. However, the savage hedonism has been tamed or civilized, because it is only after a week of hard work that the pursuit of pleasure for the sake of pleasure is enjoyed. And in writing this, I display my own implicit racism.

Written by ricardo

July 3rd, 2020 at 7:23 am

The Golden Age of FinTech

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FinTech for the Precariat (working title) is a net art work that speculates on the false promises of income distribution in the Age of Bezos. COVID-19 has compounded existential insecurity; the pandemic of stress has been inseminated by the novel flu virus to birth a new reality – a chasm of uncertainty. As unemployment soars, speculative futures drive a stock market that has largely rebounded from the initial shock, but on what basis? The basis that this moment will soon pass and the age of plutocrats, technocrats and authoritarianism will continue thriving a year from now; the slight disruption soon forgotten. The agenda of economic growth must be embraced at the cost of human health. After all, those who enjoy the economic growth will remain safely at home in their condo or rural cabin or yacht.

It has been projected that the 2020s will be the decade of the FinTech Revolution. This marketing hyperbole is on the heels of many such revolutions – the Green Revolution, the Personal Computing Revolution, the dot.com, web2.0 and Social Network Revolution… These revolutions are sold on the promises of democratization and wealth. And they always leave a toll from cancer and the privatization of agriculture to unparalleled surveillance. Today financial technologies present the promise of democratizing complicated transactions, facilitating personal banking, mass speculation in stocks… Whether budgeting or gambling, these tools are relatively harmless. However, entirely new finance mechanisms or rather schemes are being developed as part of FinTech including autonomous finance, bitcoin and ultimately the financialization of human existence. A sector of FinTech will compound income inequality nationally and globally to insurmountable levels. As made abundantly clear by world leaders, finance no longer serves humanity, humanity serves finance.

Question of Intelligence

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Before COVID-19 shutdown New York City, I had the opportunity to experience the exhibition “The Question of Intelligence – AI and the Future of Humanity” curated by Christiane Paul at Parson’s Kellen Gallery. I did not enter the exhibition expecting to witness disparate algorithms animating the exhibition space. It took me a few minutes to realize that the empty gallery (populated only by myself and two silent gallery sitters busily working, I suppose, on their school work) was brought to life by artworks forced to listen to one another and respond. I’m talking about artworks sensing via microphones, cameras, the internet; processing through artificial intelligence, machine learning, algorithms; and communicating via speakers, projectors, screens, printers, the internet and miniature swamps.

Christiane Paul has assembled elder artificial intelligence artworks over 40 years old (though still learning) with nascent works just starting to realize themselves. With the popular explosion of catch phrases including “Big Data,” “AI,” “Machine Learning,” “Today, right now, you have more power at your finger tips than entire generations that came before you…” (I used to appreciate Common before the Microsoft commercial, now I cringe when I hear his voice), Paul has curated a learning experience that recognizes the generational history of artificial intelligence as a creative medium.

Upon entering the gallery, one hears female artificial voices generating poetry or relating temperatures and soil humidity and other environmental measures or in the distance an occasional tweet. To the left, I saw a big black microphone and elected to approach it as the first means toward interactivity. I introduced myself and then watched my words projected onto the wall along with Chinese-style landscape paintings. Trails are drawn from word groupings to word groupings along with drawn landscapes and icons forming a word and image map. The projection is a mind map generator based on the words captured by the microphone. Following a few phrases, I decided it wasn’t very interesting and decided to move on. Adjacent to it is Lynn Hershman Leeson’s chatbot Agent Ruby (2001), but having interacted with one of Leeson’s works at Yerba Buena’s “The Body Electric” recently, I only spent a minute with it before moving on, also it didn’t know what to make of what I was telling it.

“image may contain” by Lior Zalmanson

Adjacent to the chatbot, is Lior Zalmanson’s “image may contain” in which the artist feeds historically significant images into FaceBook’s Automatic Alternative Text image recognition algorithm, an accessibility AI to help contextualize images for the blind and sight impaired. The artists uses the uncontextualized and minimal description of the historical images to identify “similar” images and then collapses them onto lenticular prints. Above are the images that appear in the first print as I move from left to right. The work simply and clearly shows that bots such as AAT should not be used to present information and least of all pretend to be a source of knowledge, at least not yet.

“Us Aggregated” by Mimi Onuoha

Similarly, Mimi Onuoha uploaded a photo of her mother “to Google’s reverse image search, which allows one to upload a picture to find online images that the Google algorithms identify as related.” Scaled, printed and framed from the initial image at the center to the algorithmically related images encircling, a seemingly family home portrait wall appears, leading one to question the process of algorithmic categorization based entirely on visual similarity. With such a project, I can’t help but recall eugenics and Sekula’s “The Body and the Archive.”

I then circled back toward the center of the gallery to try and figure out what was going on with “The Giver of Names” by David Rokeby. And it wasn’t until I read the instructions and changed the objects on the pedestal to assemble my own still life that the brilliance of the exhibition really dawned on me!

“The Giver of Names” (naming since 1990) consists of a monitor, speaker, old CCTV camera, pedestal, pile of old toys and a program that tries to understand what it is seeing through the camera to generate poetry. Once I removed the toys left on the pedestal and placed my own selection, I watched the AI go into action by identifying shapes and colors and then trying to make sense of what it was identifying or “seeing.” Those shapes and colors feed a poetry algorithm that speaks and writes to the monitor adjacent to the CCTV camera. Meanwhile, just beyond this installation, the not very interesting mind mapping microphone is also capturing this generated poetry as it echoes across the gallery and starts mind mapping away. AWESOME! The gallery is its own loop of machines churning away at one another’s utterances. This realization helped me refocus my attention and expand my time with each work. I tried to capture this in the video at the top of this entry.

Near the entrance on a wall monitor, hangs AARON which I had merely paused at for a few seconds but now returned to observe. “AARON is the earliest artificial intelligence program for artmaking and one of the longest running ongoing projects in contemporary art. Harold Cohen started creating AARON at UCSD in the late 1960s and developed the software until his death in 2016. In this video AARON produces a new color image every 10 to 15 minutes.” As one tours the gallery, AARON is quietly working away creating shapes and lines of color, artful abstractions.

“Deep Swamp” by Tega Brian

Back near the center of the gallery, just beyond “The Giver of Names” is another work with a female computer voice speaking at intervals. Tega Brain’s “Deep Swamp” asks “if new ‘wilderness’ is the absence of explicit human intervention, what would it mean to have autonomous computational systems sustain wild places?” The handsome installation has three AIs, Nicholas, Hans and Harrison each “engineer their environment for different goals. Harrison aims for a natural looking wetland, Hans is trying to produce a work of art and Nicholas simply wants attention.”

“Learning to See” by Memo Akten uses machine learning to relate the objects on a pedestal that a camera captures to five different data sets that the system has been fed. The visitor can re-arrange the objects on the pedestal to see new interpretations. Across from the pedestal on a wall is a split screen that shows the image captured by the camera adjacent to the system’s interpretation. “Every 30 seconds the scene changes between different networks trained on five different datasets: ocean and waves, clouds and sky, fire and flowers, and images from the Hubble Space telescope.

Similarly across the gallery, hang a series of prints by Mary Flanagan. The work is [Grace:AI] in which generative algorithms trained on thousands of paintings and drawings by women to create a series of images. “[Grace:AI] was tasked to create her ‘origin story’ by looking at 20,000 online images of Frankenstein’s monster and producing its portrait.”

Both “Learning to See” and “[Grace:AI]” employ generative adversarial networks (GAN), to generate new visualizations. Using GAN anyone can put their own conceptual spin to generate a data set for the machine to learn and see what it spits out. Over the last few years, I’ve seen a few similar projects, my favorite remains an early one – the MEOW Generator trained on a cat dataset.

Perhaps the most darkly monumental project are the large four black machines with spinning fans, exuding steam and ticker tape – the installation component of #BitSoil Tax by LarbitsSisters. The project proposes the fair redistribution of internet wealth to all people through a new taxation system. The installation is utopian, dark and whimsical.

“microBitsoils” by LarbitsSisters

Other projects on exhibit include “Futures of Work” by Brett Wallace, and Ken Goldberg and the AlphaGarden Collective.

Cuban Girlfriend for Rent

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Spouting Bald Fat Man and Beautiful Young Woman

Friday April 26th, 2019, I had arrived in Camaguey, Cuba the previous day for the city’s video art biennial. Earlier this day, I presented a virtual reality piece – “Incertidumbre” outside the biennial’s theater – on the street in a small public square. It was a big hit with unsuspecting pedestrians, not so much because of the content, but rather because no one had tried virtual reality, so people were awed. Throughout the two-hour duration of presenting the work, there was a line, so that evening I decided to treat myself to a nice dinner at a restaurant that I had enjoyed on my last visit to the same biennial. I requested a seat on the rooftop deck as it was not too hot and I could enjoy the view of the city with its rooftop ceramic tiles and many church towers as the sun set.

I had the patio to myself until a couple arrived – a man perhaps near 50 with a young woman, perhaps in her late teens. As I was alone, I couldn’t help but overhear their conversation. He spoke with an Argentinian accent as he told her about his latest travels – business travels around Western Europe and South America. His voice was deep and aggressive, not particularly pleasant to listen to. He was a large bald white man who stood over six feet with a decent belly and skinny legs. His v-neck t-shirt with a pattern of sailboats was a bit too tight. She was a beautiful light-black young woman with an hourglass figure. Her large firm breasts shaped nicely her fitted dark tank top.

The large bald white man talked about flying first class, the delicious champagnes that he was served. He told her that in first class the seats fully recline. He would down three or four champagne glasses, transform his seat into a bed and put himself to sleep. He told her about the sporty BMW that he rented to travel around Spain as he had meetings in Madrid and Seville. He said his business was doing well, described how busy he has been, and that he was glad to be back in Camaguey to relax. He talked on and on while she remarked in awe but with a tinge of boredom. For the most part, she merely listened. Until he paused with a complaint – that he had been telling her all about his life and travels and she had not told him about her life – what she has been up to, details of her life…

At this she replied with a hint of frustration – “you already know all about my life. I get up, go to school, after school, I do sports until it’s time to go home for dinner, and then I study until it’s time to go to bed… That is my life, I don’t go out, because I’m too busy with school and athletics. I’ve already told you all this…”

At this point, I couldn’t help myself but shift my chair a bit and pretend to take a selfie with them in the background. It was a stereotypical reality that one hears about and sees upon visiting Cuba – older men from abroad paying girls for their time and bodies. It was clear that they knew each other and that they are together when he is in Camaguey. Perhaps he maintains her by regularly sending her money and in exchange she is his when he is in town.

I finished my dinner, particularly enjoying the plantains stuffed with shrimp. I had had those before and upon entering the restaurant, they immediately came to mind. I requested the bill from one of the waitresses – two and at times three had been hanging around the patio as the downstairs was empty and the only patrons were myself and the older bald white man with the beautiful girl.

Written by ricardo

July 15th, 2019 at 1:16 pm