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All, Most: Haecceity Stack

All, Most: Haecceity Stack is an eight-part sculpture made of light, glass, and 3D-printed structures. At the sculpture's core is a networked cluster of microcomputers that collectively execute a distributed program. Data is processed, generated, distributed, and, in its penultimate form, encoded in light and transmitted across a series of eight light sources. Ultimately, it is viewers that execute the final form by wearing light-sensor headphones that translate the data from light into human-audible sound.

produced by: Luke Demarest

Introduction

Like a world map, All, Most: Haecceity Stack is a simplified model of reality, inaccurate in an intentionally specific and useful way. Its value is not in precision, but description, in making the out-of-sight or invisible visible. All, Most: Haecceity Stack is an exercise in experimental representation - building a speculative system model that illuminates the commonly hidden materiality of present-day, planetary-scale computing and points towards emergent structures of connection and power rooted in the most basic physics of atoms, bits, and humans.

Concept and background research

“One reason we rush so quickly to the vulgar satisfactions of judgment, and love to revel in our righteous outrage, is that it spares us from the impotent pain of empathy, and the harder, messier work of understanding.” (Kreider, 2012)

As the torch of the great tradition of ‘getting it wrong’ is passed into the hands of our generation and its overwhelmingly banal flame shines brilliantly on our face, our outlook is increasingly bright. The light of this torch always shows more to see and greater resolutions for seeing. However, there also always comes with it a clarity that some of the previous ways of seeing were fuzzy at best. As our particular leg in this race approaches - to ultimately pass the torch once more, it only seems natural to take pause and sketch out a speculative big picture map for situating the run ahead.

Three contemporary influences have also taken big picture approaches to situating life practices. While their research have varying scope and topic, an underlying theme in each line of research is an understanding that global-scale computing is at the roots of the emergent forms of society - and should be understood. These thoughts inform the form and function of the sculpture - both physically in the form of hardware and virtually in the structure of software.

As we enter a new age of ever-increasing global connection, we are experiencing vast but subtle shifts in how people communicate, organize themselves, and make decisions. [...] As as these connections increase, it should be no surprise that we will also experience a concomitant rise in mystery. (Zuckerman, 2013)

Ethan Zuckerman notes that changes in technology have lead to changes in social systems and how we come understand them. He indicates that it is no longer useful to build a systems understanding through traditional practices of gathering already existing but hidden information about a system, but instead it is useful to study anomalies or mysterious processes in a system since those ultimately describe how a system changes and point towards the system’s underlying emergent rules. Zuckerman stresses that we need to build new computational tools (and use those that already exist) to reveal the mysteries between flows of bits, atoms, and people and bring clarity to the actual structures of society, instead of the structures we assume to exist by default. All, Most: Haecceity Stack is a tool, but also as an interface plays with the subtle and seemingly mysterious processes of data's material culture - even when that material is as ephemeral or immaterial as light.

In the US, Black women’s participation with the digital is frequently evinced in neoliberal preoccupations with learning to code… these projects are largely an individualized, privatized approach to thinking about Black women’s empowerment, in neoliberal fashion… many African American digital technology projects are disconnected in their context, content, and intent from the materiality of ICT processes in the Black/African diaspora. (Noble, 2016)

A naive interpretation of Zuckerman could be that computational literacy and tools should be central to one’s practice. However, in line with Zuckerman, Safiya Umoja Noble importantly notes that computational literacy and tools, especially in current form, are not enough for understanding contemporary systems of power and oppression or creating societal change on their own. Noble underlines that for those who aim to understand macro power structures, an intersectional critique can provide the liberatory potential for change, understanding, and inform action. All, Most: Haecceity Stack illuminates the voices of women and men of color from the mining industry in South America who interact with the global computing both physically and virtually.

Today we lack the adequate vocabularies to properly engage the operations of planetary-scale computing, and we make use of those at hand regardless of how poorly they serve us...Going forward we really do need new and better models, because computation already operates in ways that have surpassed and overflowed the regular cartographies. (Bratton, 2015)

Benjamin Bratton widens the macro gaze further by stressing that not only our tools or our frameworks need reexamination, but our lexicons themselves. Building off the OSI model, Bratton begins to construct a speculative structure that encapsulates global computing as a whole. By approaching the whole, Bratton speculates that we stand a better chance of shaping better forms of globalization and perhaps also see that we weren’t totally lacking in useful tools and frameworks, but “a platform to situate, deploy, and enforce them.” All, Most: Haecceity Stack builds from Bratton’s 6 layered stack by creating an 8 layered sculptural platform. Two layers are added. One for a nod to future extraplanetary computation. The last is a platform for our future torch hand-off, perhaps to something non-human that ushers in the post-anthropocene.

 

 

Three artistic influences contributed to the either aesthetic or formal choices of the piece. In no particular order, the sculptures of Peter Vogel, the architecture of Santiago Calatrava, and in a less-paranoid/more-systems-dissection sense the visualizations of Mark Lombardi. It seems an underlying thread is that form and function are one throughout each artistic practice. In a certain sense ornamentation is omitted in each piece.

"Sound for me was just another possibility to show time patterns. I was not interested to make sound sculptures. I wanted to show how the object changes its structure of reaction. If you show a time structure by mechanical or optical means, you cannot see details, but with sound you can hear the smallest details of changing time patterns. So I decided to use sound." (Vogel, 2007)

As with a background in visual art, I quite identify with how Vogel articulates his work in relation to focusing on time instead of sound. His view also seemed to resonate with some traffic analysis and network analysis techniques that are used for mapping communication systems solely through time patterns. Calatrava's work, on the other hand, seems to reference, but never copy familiar but foreign organic patterns materialized in skeletal-like metal and glass. For some inexplicable reason his work always comes to mind as visual metaphor pure out-of-sight computational systems. Calatrava's work similarly feels like the primary material is time and light. Finally, Mark Lombari's work is painstakingly precise. There's almost a pure, weightless quality to his drawings that Calatrava's buildings and Vogel's sculptures grasp. The drawings can feel to aim for a complete, precise representation of a system - a sisyphean holy-grail forever out of reach. I tried to capture some of these qualities in this particular experimental representation.

Technical

For All, Most: Haecceity Stack, I decided to further develop a series of prototypes I had been experimenting with throughout the course. My technical process continued to be an even balance of prototyping with hardware and software. My software decisions were greatly influenced by my hardware decisions and visa versa. 

In my first iterations I used Arduino and C++ to make tones with Pulse Width Modulation(PWM) on small microcontrollers. In my second iterations I used RaspberryPi Zero (RPi0) and PureData (Pd) to make tones and other sounds with PWM. This was achieved by studying the RPi0 GPIO pinout and reconfiguring/redirecting the sound output to its pin BMC 18 for PWM 0 and to its pin BMC 13 for PWM 1. This allowed for a simple multiplexing of 2 channels (usually left and right headphone speaker) of sound per RPi0. I would have never realized this was possible without my earlier Arduino experiments with clocks and prescalers.

 

 

I built All, Most: Haecceity Stack by creating a cluster of 5 RPi0s for better power management, networking, heat control, and greatly decreasing the overall physical footprint. I used the clusterhat to bring the individual board together. As for LEDs I experimented with nearly 10 different styles and colors, but finalized the piece with the 5050 cool white LED since it lays flat, has an integrated driver, has simple and uniform white edges, and easily compatable with electric paint. I painted these LEDs onto a series of ITO glass planes to try to capture the seemingly immaterial nature of distributed global-scale computing. These glass circuits were then embedded into 3D printed structures and those in turn were grounded into the custom plinth. I made an active effort to hide any traditional sign of technology. No circuits, no wires, no boards, and even no power cables since the entire installation could run on a dedicated battery. Light and, as extension, data were the intended focus.

 

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As for programming language, I chose to continue using PureData instead of MaxMSP or C++ with OpenFrameworks. After a lot of experimentation, I decided that I would continue to trade the more feature, object, and community rich MaxMSP environment for PureData's FOSS licensing and ability to continue to run on embedded linux systems. OpenFrameworks, unlike MaxMSP, had the ability to run on the RPi0, however PureData ran more smoothly in its GUI-less mode on headless RPi0s over SSH. The succinct PureData turned out to be the best tool for this particular iteration - even though Openframeworks is still an option for future development. Compared to my previous prototype that had a master computer that instructed Each RPi0 to run a particular algorithm or tone, each RPi0 in this cluster talked to its neighbors, effecting and being effected by their processes - simulating and creating the virtual equavalent to the physical stack.

The eight levels of All, Most: Haecceity Stack are Super User, User, Interface, Address, Cloud, City, Earth, and Deep Spacetime. Super User was created with a NodeJS based markov chain. I complied the corpus text with my favorite quotes from Neal Stephenson and Cory Doctorow novels. Most of the quotes are related to AI, societal structures, and topics leading to post-anthropocene. I then played the resulting output text through espeak and exported the audio as a wav file. I found it better to play the audio file throughout the duration of the show instead of running the markov chain in realtime over 4 days. User is comprised from indeterminate cycling of personal audio recordings from Huaraz, Peru. These are recordings from a series of 4 day mining protests from people who use and provide the basis for the network. Interface was created in reference to studying Viznut's One Line Algorithmic Symphonies, I was looking at the roots of computer interfaces and some of the most elegant forms of commandline expression. Address is a short audio clip from Andrew Bird's Echolocations: Caynon album. The recording, in an abstract sense, seemed to represent address as it is a location specific recording where the cave itself is played, situated within the geological and geospatial processes of nature. Cloud was created by using a screen reader to surf the top sites listed on Alexa Top Sites . One recording scans the terms and agreements of Google Search where it states that I violate the terms by using an alternate interface than the one provided with the official service. City was created in PureData with a random walk function. I tried to create a sound that emulated an indeterminate, natural, but also at times synthetic sounding wind. It seemed the most fitting for the layer that is situated between cloud platforms and the natural world. For Earth, I returned to the subject of natural resource mining. I thought to create a tone that was akin to a drill or infinite drilling of non-renewable resources. I chose to work with an auditory illusion called a Shepherd Tone where an infinitely downward drilling sound is created by cycling a series of 20 sine waves. Finally for Deep Spacetime I referenced what could eventually be humans last message - sounds from the Voyager Golden Record. Here the Deep Spacetime layer situates our system within the larger scale of unknowns with brief indeterminate cyclings of sound as we further scale our accidental megastructure past Earth's boundaries.

 

 

Future development

In a future iteration I will build a more robust physical structure. I tend to make delicate work and am gentle in all aspects of handling. For aguably the most delicate work I've made to date, I totally underestimated the amount of force vistors would use to interact with the piece. Two glass planes were temporarily broken throughout the duration of the show. I think I will 3D-print in metal next time and use more encompassing arms for securing the fragile glass. I also want to further develop the software more, add an associated real time visualization of network traffic on the local network.

Self evaluation

I feel that I was able achieve the physical aesthetic goals and conceptual goals I set out for the piece. In reflection, I would have built more robust 3D-printed structures so that the whole piece was less fragile and more resistant to unexpected user interaction. The piece was weakest in regards to its structural fragility - that is a definite area of improvement. I am looking forward to scaling it in size. In this scaling I want to make the software more complex with increased variation, but also think through more clear methods of explaning interaction.  I am proud of my project, but excited to make the next iteration.

References

Zuckerman E. Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection. W. W. Norton & Company; 2013. Available from: http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/rewire-digital-cosmopolitans-in-the-age-of-connection/

Noble SU. A Future for Intersectional Black Feminist Technology Studies. The Scholar & Feminist Online. 2016; 14.1 (13.3). Available from: http://sfonline.barnard.edu/traversing-technologies/safiya-umoja-noble-a-future-for-intersectional-black-feminist-technology-studies/ [Accessed 27 March 2018]

Bratton B. The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty. MIT Press; 2015 Available from:  https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/stack

CounterComplex. Algorithmic symphonies from one line of code -- how and why? Available from: http://countercomplex.blogspot.com/2011/10/algorithmic-symphonies-from-one-line-of.html

Clusterhat. Available from: https://clusterhat.com/

PureData. Available from: https://puredata.info/