by Sarah Groff-Hennigh Palermo
From the moment I built my first logic gate—just a few wires, a transistor, an LED and a switch—I thought hardware was cool. I could harness electricity to do my bidding! I could put tiny computers out into the world and add a little magic to my realism. And, even better, the Internet of Things was the new hotness. I would be cool and I would be hip and—dammit—I would run into a culture that seemed mostly interested in helping to bring dystopian surveillance machines straight from sci-fi into sci-fact. Why was it so easy to spy on my plants, my home and myself, and so hard to find projects that seemed fueled by imagination? Why was the discourse so much about tracking and improving myself, like a good neoliberal worker-bee?
It turns out, the tilt towards what I like to call watcher objects—that is, the Fitbits, Nests, Dropcams, Points, Senses, Spires—is a direct consequence of its historical constitution: its roots in mathematics and the military, and its subsequent flowering in Northern California’s cybernetics-counterculture confluence.
But it also turns out that if our contemporary discussions and goals are shaped by the origins of computing, there are strains that work counter to the dominant narrative. We can use the power of art—rooted in its own modernist history—to question and undermine dominance. We can use these materials to create a different type of hardware culture and build tools for a different kind of work.
How Did We Get Here? A Very Short History of Computational Culture
The idea that the world is full of facts floating about, ready to pulled down from the ether, interpreted, and redeployed to change behaviors, sprouts from a particular theory of information. This theory emphasizes information’s independence from its origin and constructs information as a class of knowledge that is in no way contingent or subjective but instead consists of free-floating bits of truth. Despite the way it may be presented in contemporary culture as a factual description of a knowledge type, thinking of information this way is a particular metaphor—one that didn’t really get going until 1950 when it emerged as a foundational metaphor for computing, both for insiders and curious bystanders.
In many ways, the development of modern computation and information is the same story. Both can be considered to have begun with George Boole and his telegraph-describing Boolean logic in the nineteenth century.1 Boole’s system of logic, using set concepts familiar to all CS students like AND, OR and NOR, is embodied physically in computer hardware. His assertion that mathematical logic is the purest embodiment of human reason, pure because it is removed from the meanings words and concepts carry with them, is embodied in the way information is treated every day. This stretch towards mathematics as the ultimate description and perfection of human thought finds its apotheosis in the work of Bertrand Russell and Albert North Whitehead. In Principia Mathematica, the two contend that the symbolism of mathematics, in contrast to words, allows for “perfectly precise expression.”2
This idea continues its life as the basis for Claude Shannon’s information theory, which defines how much information is sent with a given message. Information, as a mathematical symbol, is perfect, and context is important. Shannon shares this theory with fellow mathematicians and computer scientists at the Macy Conferences of the early 1950s. (Though he suggests information theory should be limited to communications engineering problems, it quickly escapes.) These conferences are attended by most of the defense department–funded computer science forefathers (and they are all fathers), including proposer of the Memex, Vannevar Bush; ARPA-fund dispenser JCR Licklider; and former Russell student Norbert Wiener. Wiener defines the field of cybernetics, the science of command and control, in which the lessons he learned from developing anti-aircraft weaponry in World War II are applied to the relationships between humans and machines. Here information becomes the message carrier of a system of logical feedback and machine-aided decision-making. If this is beginning to sound familiar, it should. When the counterculture hippies met the cyberneticists in the pages of the Whole Earth Catalog and the cities of California in the 1970s, the culture that animates our contemporary world of technical goals and dreams solidified. From this field grew Wired, whose former editor Chris Anderson is a primary booster of the Internet of Things and mechanico-surveillance of the future.
Given this pedigree, it is not surprising that so much conversation and culture around hardware is a conversation of command-and-control.
Art as Rejoinder
Fortunately, though it may not be reflected in capital-T Tech these days, cybernetics as a field continued to evolve, questioning its foundations and allowing space for systems that are contingent, embodied, subjective, and generally messy. Humanities researchers have begun to investigate how we might rehumanize our current approaches to information, and art provides a great space for testing out prototypes of a different approach.
I like to think of the practice of prototyping new approaches to computers, hardware, and information as “polluting the possible.” That is, the goal is not so much to create the product or work that is going to convince everyone to reverse or even apprehend all the assumptions of 150 years of computing culture. Rather, by producing a multiplicity of works, we can add new ideas to our culture that may lead to development in the directions of our hopes, a reharnessing of the drive these days to bring 80s dystopias into being.
In this circumstance, choosing to work with hardware and code in pursuit of art gives us an opportunity to explore these materials outside of their most common domains: What are the fundamentals of how a sensor circuit works? What else are motors good for? What kind of interaction really captures the satisfaction of twisting a potentiometer? In diving into the basics underlying the hardware in our life, we can come to see that new networked objects are not magic but are built on graspable principles. What we grasp, we can change.
Playing with the elements of these watcher objects can also take the form of playing with the data they generate. To interrogate the assumption that information is best when it is separate, contextless, and free, one could build her own information capture and display system that only makes sense with context. In fact, researchers Kristina Höök, Anna Ståhl, Petra Sundström, Jarmo Laaksolahti have looked at design for interactional empowerment and concluded that design that maintains users’ sense of privacy and autonomy is design that reflects data back in contextual and ambiguous ways that require knowledge of its generation to be interpreted. One could pollute the possible by making a home-monitoring system like the Point that instead of reporting times and numbers gave a sense of your home in the aesthetic style of Mary Weatherford.
Or instead, we might investigate what kinds of relationships we currently have and may have with objects around us. A vibration motor used in phones to get our attention for text messages can be repurposed to draw attention to just how many of us are around, and to suggest the motor doesn’t like it much. Or, to play with a staple idea of an IoT kitchen, a milk carton that tells us the milk is going bad, we might use similar technology—to tell us our books are going bad in their own way.
Neglect III & p5bots
I recently combined both approaches in Neglect III, a project for the Artificial Retirement show at Flux Factory. (I just shipped it off yesterday, but it will be gone by the time you see these words.) In the piece, books are presented to the public and how often they are picked up is tracked by force sensors attached to an Arduino. That is, the sensors tell me what my books need me to know — how loved they feel. The objects harness the sensors instead of the sensors harnessing us. To show us how the books are doing, the display also includes a data art projection in which ignored books slowly fall to pieces.
This work builds off two previous works: Timeline of Neglect and Neo-Neglect. Timeline is an online work of data art that hijacks a basic bar chart to show the ebbing of books I have continued to ignore, based on entries to a database. Inspired by work from Stefanie Posavec, I got started by playing with what I could say about books and how I could use data to surpass the coldness and over-determination of numbers. What our old friends Russell & Boole may have considered the perfection of humanity seemed a little cold to me and I wanted to see how I could give visual expression to the slow disintegration of an ignored story. It makes use of basic generative art techniques of repetition and chance to make something that looks like a moth-eaten timeline or bar chart.
Neo-Neglect was my first attempt to bring the timeline into real-time monitoring and it allowed the books to post to the web or text the owner. It developed after I first started playing with hardware and became excited by the possibility of bringing computing out of just the screen itself. It used the exciting lo-fi approach of copper tape to create a pressure-closable switch and the hi-fi Tessel 1 microcontroller to send events to a pub-sub service, which listens for events from various devices and then relays them out to websites or other internet-attached devices that have subscribed to it.
With Neglect III, I think I’ve finally managed to bring into existence the alternate sensor and information relation system I dreamed of since I was first disappointed by Instructables and the vanilla Internet of Things. I’m excited to start on another little prototype and go back to launching ideas into the possible. I hope you are too!
Clown Barf Online: Make Your Own Hardware-Controlled Web Project
Neglect III is also built on a tools project I developed as part of Google Summer of Code, p5bots. This library that allows users to connect an Arduino running Firmata to p5.js. Because I want everyone to make fun works, too, I was excited to work with p5.js, designed to make it easy and pleasant to start developing art in the browser.
Which bring us to our web bonus: a quick and dirty p5.js + p5bots project you can mess around with to get familiar with each part of the system. Named after a description of the characteristic color palette generated by using random input colors, Clown Barf will walk through setting up a push button and potentiometer and using them to draw to the screen. From here, you can go anywhere.
Addendum: Cool Resources
I hope you are excited to keep going making art with hardware and code. Check out the resources below for more, plus deep dives into computing history and more.
Generative & Data Art
p5.js website API reference, downloads, and plenty of examples and tutorials.
Coding Rainbow Dan Shiffman makes tons of great videos about learning to how to code, how to make art with code, and in particular, how to make art with p5.js.
Dear Data Stefanie Posavec & Giorgia Lupi make some of the most interesting data art around. Dear Data is a project they did together, in which they sent one another new postcard-sized works every week.
Creative Applications A nice big site full of tons of generative art projects. If you are looking to be excited or inspired, Creative Applications is a great stop.
Hardware and Electronics
p5bots A simple way to include hardware input into your p5 sketch. The website includes more examples and an API reference.
J5IK From the makers of Johnny 5, Sparkfun, and Tessel, the Johnny 5 Inventors Kit is the kind of thorough hardware kit you would expect. The kit comes with a Tessel, tons of components, and—the best—a ton of tutorials that help you learn the code and circuits you need to make use of them.
Getting Started in Electronics From Forest Mims, this book is a classic introduction to basic electronics. Follow along and build the circuits, and you will come out with a solid beginner’s understanding. Also helpful references are the three Make Encylopedias and other books from their collection*.
Cybernetics and Counterculture
James Gleick, The Information This book, though it can be uncritical and sometimes romantic, provides a solid popular history of the evolution of information and computing through the ages.
Jon Gertner, The Idea Factory Focused on the story of Bell Labs, where Claude Shannon developed information theory alongside Bill Shockley’s transistor, this is another fun nonfiction read.
Greg Castillo and Esther Choi, Hippie Modernism This catalog from a show at the Walker Museum contains essays and reproductions charting the encounter between the cyberneticists and hippies that still feeds today’s tech culture. It is big and utterly worth it.
Fred Turner, From Counterculture to Cyberculture A history of the same period, focusing on Stewart Brand, the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog and impresario to be found at the center of the ensuing decades.
N. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman A great critical work dedicated to the history of cybernetics and the assumptions it makes about how we exist in the world.
New Media Reader This fat, fat book includes excerpts from early computer scientists, new media artists, and computing culture critics. A super solid survey.
- While some writers may be romantic and suggest that it goes back to talking drums, in fact, to describe this communication in terms of information is to apply contemporary constructions to a past that would not have described it this way. A more reasonable objection would be to suggest that surely Charles Babbage and Lady Ada Byron are the right parents. They did contribute to the development of a general computational theory, but I think the practicality of Boole’s work and its direct lineage makes his work a useful starting point in this (very short) history. ↩
- Quoted in James Gleick’s The Information, p. 178. ↩