Pre-Singularity Artist Nears Completion of Project to Replicate Everything in Meatspace
Says He’s Tired
J. L. Edwards vows to somautomate once his work is done
By H. D. Case III
Saturday, May 24, 2064
PORTLAND, Ore. — I sat down recently with self-described “new media / old media / spirit media” artist J. L. Edwards to talk about Little Data, his lifelong project to “scan, track, record, measure, document, collect, archive, quantify, classify, categorize, reduce, reproduce, save, store, sort, and back-up-up-up every ‘thing’ in the world” (IOW, IRL). Now in its fiftieth — and, he hopes, last — year, the project is nearing a critical limit: Edwards’ self-financed “Bibliobabilu” — the largest privately-owned data center in the world — is running out of space.
“There are actually a lot more Things in the world that could still be saved,” he says, insisting on the capital-T and joking about his evangelistic language, “But I think my ark’s already got the best of the world’s most important Things by now anyway.” Looking back, he says it’s been a “wild and mundane” experience, taking him to corners of the world even he never thought he would visit. “I grew up all over the world in the 1980s and ’90s and early ’00s — the Philippines, Morocco, India, Egypt, Sri Lanka — and for a while I thought I was good, like I’d seen it all. Boy, was I ever further from the truth.”
“It’s been great. But look at me. I’m one of the last old people left in the world. It really is a pain in the ass. I’m tired, and I’m tired of, a lot. I knew I’d get around to it eventually but I wanted to hold out for as long as I possibly could. I’ve come to terms with so much — that’s what a lot of my work has been about — and I think I’m basically OK with undergoing the somautomation procedure now.” He plans to upload his consciousness in November, on his 80th birthday.
The following interview (the first in a series of three) has been edited for clarity and brevity.
HDC: How did this project begin?
JLE: I originally came to Little Data as the result of a variety of mounting concerns about how technology had come to affect us in the early twenty-first century — how our use of smartphones and the Internet, social media and photography, Google Earth, Maps, and Street View, ‘big data’ analytics, facial recognition software and the like appeared to be changing the way we conducted ourselves in society. These anxieties came to a head over the summer of 2013 when two things occurred: the public release of information by Edward Snowden about the National Security Agency’s massive foreign and domestic digital surveillance operations, often conducted in concert with popular tech service providers like Google; and the profound nausea I felt upon discovering on Facebook, a friend — someone I hadn’t seen since high school and had planned to meet that summer — dead of drug overdose, his fate casually announced, questioned, and picked apart as just one more random thing among the infinite litany of banalities we’ve come to know as the ‘Feed’.
If the medium was the message, I wanted nothing more than to destroy it.
HDC: Sounds like a classic case of the loom-smashies.
Not exactly. Luddites are content to smash looms from a foreign position exterior to the loom; I wanted to work myself into a system in order to understand its weakpoints and then exploit those vulnerabilities so that I might most effectively dismantle it. I soon realized that I needed to do more than that — as an artist, I needed to subvert its intended uses in order to create, in a more positive sense, something new. I chose the most challenging tool I could think of — the 3D printer: the latest in evangelistic technology, now commonly available to all, hailed breathlessly as the utopian instrument that would emancipate us from the shackles of mass production and unleash unbounded creativity, from every user, upon the world — in my quest to investigate, infiltrate, and (in some way) disintegrate this behemoth of a subject that is ‘technology’.
HDC: So was ‘making’ less important for you than working through some kind of philosophical problem?
Sort of. If making is a way of thinking, I now had a new way to make and therefore a new thing to think about. The 3D printer became something to ground me, something to provide resistance against, something tangible to hold up for inspection. More broadly, it oriented my investigations according to a model which applied art, craft, and design in the explicit service of critical reflection and speculation — creative acts of envisioning (one in a mirror, another over the horizon) employed for the purposes of social critique and philosophical investigation. I would not be using the 3D printer to make, necessarily, beautiful artwork, well-crafted objects, or clever designs, but as a way of thinking through thorny problems. (Among them: What will I make? What will it have to do with my conceptual interests? Who are we and what is technology?) Any objects I made became secondary to my concept — the objects would function as triggers that might launch avenues of thought and discussion revolving around necessary questions. To do this, I needed not just an area of exploration, not just a line of inquiry, but a thesis.
HDC: I understand it wasn’t just 3D printing you were interested in at the time.
Yes. My determination to adopt this new piece of hardware became matched with, and was probably surpassed by, my newfound fascination with a new piece of software: a photogrammetric application which could turn photographs of an object into a virtual 3D model of that object — in other words, a crude form of 3D scanning. The sheer quantity and precise quality of the photography required to make a good (more accurate, more detailed) 3D model became, for me, an apt metaphor for the kinds of social behaviors (behaviors, worst of all, that I recognized in myself) that had instigated this investigation in the first place — obsessive, compulsive, rigid, atomized, determined, shallow. But perhaps even more fitting were the quiet failings of the software — in spite of all its efforts (which I actually, and quite happily, found so impressive) to process and produce a correct representation of reality, and in addition to inevitable bulges and holes, it simply could not determine the distinction between figure and ground. The object melted into its surroundings, just one thing among — and inextricable from — a vast universe of things. It reminded me, in an oddly affective way, of the perceptive and cognitive abilities of an infant. And once I managed to get past this kind of cuteness, the scale of my discomfort with technology expanded beyond culture — and maybe even history — and became a fundamental, existential terror. Without even considering the common tropes of machine intelligence (computer chess players, non-player characters in video games, language-based Turing tests, etc.), by using this free and easy-to-use app, by holding myself unaccountable to its entrancing and apparently magical properties, and, crucially, by identifying its abilities with those of an infant, I had just glimpsed something like the death of our species: the post-human.
HDC: A little pessimistic, no?
Well, I’ll say that there is a mystical element to all of this — for ‘death’ may only just be another way of saying ‘birth’ — as well as a ridiculously utopian one. In the absence of political order arranged by traditional religions — and in largely abandoning the subjective experience of ineffable spiritual phenomena — we have, in something like five hundred years, given ourselves over entirely to an ‘enlightened’ modern experience defined by rational, scientific, industrial, and technological leaps. As individuals, we ‘enjoy’ rather than pray, losing ourselves in art, music, literature, theater, cinema, and games — each one a step closer to reconstructing a more perfect realm of experience (whether ‘perfect’ is defined by the efficacy of its illusionistic, immersive, ego-dissipating qualities or by its revelatory, truth-telling, socially responsible qualities). These are our highest pursuits, and I love all of them. But I don’t think it’s any accident that they sound at all like religious paradigms or spiritual experiences — I believe that this fundamental impulse is somehow embedded in our genetic codes, instinctually expressing itself in different ways according to historical or cultural contexts. That said, the marches of progress and production are, more or less, unstoppable and largely unquestionable. I did question them, though, and by embarking upon this project wanted to consider what the implications might be when taken to their logical conclusions. Given what we knew then and what we could extrapolate in the extreme, could we possibly know what the future holds? (Is it any accident that science fiction — the fiction of science? — became one of the most potent forms of mythmaking — or prophesizing — in the twentieth century?) I wanted to consider what an absurdly quantified utopia might look like, and what the subjective, human experience of its inhabitants might be like.
HDC: What form did the project take, then?
The project I envisioned took these new technologies — 3D printing and 3D scanning — and imagined their applications on an absurd scale. Everything in the world would be recorded, archived, categorized, communicated, reduced, and reproduced. Objects in the world would have their ‘back-ups’, their facile facsimiles and classifications, animated by information projected onto (à la Google Glass) or out of (à la the ‘Internet of Things’) them; subjects would be tracked (à la NSA surveillance), and would track themselves (à la Instagram) — their preferences, characteristics, actions, behaviors, experiences, and memories all arranged in patterns so recognizable, reliable, and predictable that the concepts of chance, choice, free will and human agency become obsolete. This was ‘big data’: mining indiscriminately large data sets to detect patterns, derive meaning, and predict the future — ‘everything’ in the world being quite a ‘big’ thing, and (for my purposes) digital photography, 3D modeling, and 3D printing all being ways of making and organizing ‘data’. The title of the project —Little Data — was a send-up of this concept, and proposed that ‘counting what can’t be counted’ (to paraphrase Albert Einstein) is a problem not just of incompatibility, and isn’t just absurd or impossible, but may ultimately represent a dangerous and existentially threatening Faustian bargain.
HDC: OK, but what did it look like?
So, the material manifestation of the project took these ideas and broke them up into all-too-convenient little pieces of a puzzle — an esoteric system of classification which broke the world down into easy chunks. Easier to process and to build with, these chunks constituted the parts of a complete worldview — it is someone looking out at the world and looking into himself, trying to figure out how all these things come together and make sense. In its way, it represents a model of human consciousness.
The scales of our models and maps — as well as the contents of their keys — must vary greatly if we wish to sensibly manage and navigate the vast amount of potential information in the world. My first installation was just five objects on a wall, representing the key to one such map. Each object is representative, as archetypical classifications, of any number of further examples, which may exist anywhere in the world. Its corresponding map was the Applied Craft and Design studio itself [where Edwards was attending graduate school], everything else within it just another piece of information. The ‘territory’ it mapped, conceptually, was the entire world, as it is known to humans.
HDC: Just five things on a wall?
Bear with me here. One classification was The Thing: 3D prints of scanned objects — souvenirs from my life, pieces of my memory and identity — placed in pretty little masu boxes (vessels for the pleasurable consumption of delirium-inducing drink). One Thing was the Seeing Machine (the Eye); another was the Mask (the Face, the Act, the Performance); another was the Vehicle (the Medium of Movement); another was the God (the Elephant, Remover of Obstacles); another was the Box (the Container — and a nearly 1:1 replica of the masu itself). These are all the things in the world — or at least, maybe the most ‘important’ things in the world. It is a pity that they are so small, that they cannot fit in their boxes as nicely as we would like, and that they are dispersed among the architectural spaces of our exhibition venue, tiny signals lost among the noise and bustle of everything else around them.
Another classification was The Image: pairs of photographs printed (in inkjet by my Epson WF-3540) on computer punch card-like squares of manila file folder cardstock, which not without accident resembled a stream of square Instagram images (or a 1980 artist book by Sol Lewitt, called Autobiography, in which every object in his live/work space was documented). These photos represented the raw data from which the photogrammetric software was able to stitch together a virtual 3D model of the Objects — artificially inter-subjective views of the Object. Now, thanks to technology, all of the blind men in the Jain / Buddhist / Sufi / Hindu myth can see the elephant for what it is — not just as a tree (trunk), or a pillar (leg), or a rope (tail), or a wall (belly). In 2014, with the printer I owned, it was only possible for me to make ‘dumb’ ABS plastic reproductions at the maximum dimensions of 5 x 5 x 5”. Given enough time, however, and in a manner similar to the facial recognition technology at the time which could tell who exactly it is looking at, I reckoned the software to analyze and recognize my objects would be sophisticated enough to understand and extrapolate from these very same raw data what these things were — ‘that is an Olympus OM-1 camera, made in Japan in the 1970s; that is an African tribal mask made of this kind of wood; this is a toy model of the Ambassador car from India; this is a metallic container in the shape of Ganesh from the Indian state of Orissa; this is a wooden Japanese cup used for drinking saké.’ So I figured I’d save these photographs for later, when my 3D printer would be able to print at any size, with any material (and most especially graphene: that form of carbon which is seven times lighter than air, 200 times stronger than steel, thin enough that a single ounce can cover 28 football fields, transparent, flexible, waterproof, conductive, and best of all, cheap; with conductive material this versatile, information and computers themselves — the ‘Internet of Things’ — really could embed themselves everywhere).
Another classification was The City: 3D prints of scanned cities — already-virtual 3D models of actual urban structures in the world (my world) re-created and re-presented on Google Earth, now re-re-created and re-re-presented, by yours truly, with Autodesk’s 123D Catch application and Up’s Plus 2 printer — placed on invisible (acrylic) platforms (5 x 7” picture frames). These platforms contained within them a slice of information (a Cartesian plane / cartographic grid printed on my signature manila ‘punch card’ squares) which so concisely described the cities (all of civilization) in their full complexity:
(a) Invisibicity (referring to Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, the mental city, the city which re-births itself in every other city);
(b) Bibliobabilu (referring to Jorge Luis Borges’ Library of Babel, a seemingly infinite network of seemingly random books; as well as to the Biblical tale of hubris, knowledge, and translation, the Tower of Babel);
(c) Panopticompli City (a portmanteau of panopticon — the prison whose surveillance is conducted by a single agent in the center who can monitor every prisoner — and complicity — implying that every prisoner is, willingly, an agent of surveillance capable of monitoring every other prisoner);
(d) Delirious New Pork (referring to Rem Koolhaas’ “retroactive manifesto” for a mad city; Pork is delicious);
(e) TCP/ICUP/CT (referring to the Transmission Control Protocol / Internet Protocol structure of the online realm; as well as to the rather puerilously horrific possibility that, in an exceedingly surveilled society, “I” may be able to “see you pee”, as well as whatever else you may be up to at any given point in time);
(f) Fabulous (meaning fabulous);
(g) Feral Puppy Metropolitan Area (because ‘stray dogs’ was already taken; wouldn’t this make a great YouTube channel?);
(h) Kabinetoquyuro City (a curiously foreign-looking city of wunderkammers);
(i) Special Autonomous Zone of Having Just Spilled the Milk All Over the Keyboard (a disaster of a place where it’s more than OK to cry);
(j) Ad Nauseamopolis (just another infinite city, just like all the other infinite cities);
All of these, in turn, referred to a string of references beginning with Foucault, passing through Borges, and ending with a character of his named John Wilkins, who has discovered a certain encyclopedia which classifies all the animals in the world according to apparently arbitrary criteria.
Another classification was The Myth: the origin of these new worlds, the process of creation (re-creation) — so fundamental and beyond history are they that we folks of the future can only speak of them in the sparest of symbols:
1. The City.
2. The Eye sees the City.
3. The Collective Eye sees the City.
4. The Total Eye sees the City.
5. The Eye creates Images.
6. The Images go into the Network.
7. The Network returns the Spirit City.
8. The Spirit City is divided into Aspects.
9. The Aspects, one by one, are Formed.
10. The New City.
One variation of the myth then describes the New City as it undergoes the same transformation. Secular scholars contended that these were actually technical operations conducted by historical figures, one of whom was named J. L. Edwards:
1. He places an object on a table.
2. He takes one photograph of it and the table, from a distance, at an equivalent focal length of 50mm (using a Pentax MX-1 digital camera with a 1/1.7” 12-megapixel back-illuminated CMOS sensor and a 4x optical zoom lens equivalent to 28-112mm and a maximum aperture range of f/1.8 - 2.5).
3. He takes a ring of eighteen photographs of the object from a slightly elevated angle.
4. He takes a ring of eighteen more photographs, now from a slightly lower angle.
5. He takes the digital files from the camera’s 16 gigabyte SD (‘Secure Digital’) card and loads the images onto his computer (a 2012 Apple Macbook Pro).
6. He uploads the files onto the 123D Catch website.
7. After about twenty minutes, 123D Catch has made a virtual 3D model.
8. The STL (‘Standard Tesselation Language’) file is loaded into his Up Plus 2’s proprietary software, where it is divided into hundreds of horizontal slices, each one a fraction of a millimeter thick.
9. He hits print, and the printer prints — additively, from the bottom up, one layer at a time.
10. After a few hours, the print is complete.
The diagrams were precise but crude, hand-drawn with simple tools (pens and pencils) but somehow also digitally manipulated.
The fifth of the five classifications was The Map: a single square of information, a miniature rendering of the world, a map within a map (if we take the AC+D studios to represent the larger map). There is (Descartes again) ‘X’ which “marks the spot” — indicating the locations of all of the objects described earlier, dispersed throughout the exhibition space; there is ‘Y’ which stands for where You are (since, with the death of the author, this might just be about Your experience and Your interpretation of it); and there is ‘Z’, The Zone — the whole, expansive territory of the hunt (see: Stalker by Andrei Tarkovsky), the experience of which may constitute a kind of ultimate activation and fulfillment.
HDC: What kind of fulfillment?
In my mind, the most fulfilling successes of the project occured simply in the face-to-face conversations that arose out of the physical work. From the beginning, the very fact that I was 3D printing as a ‘fine artist’ aroused interest; from there the next question was what I was 3D printing. That I was replicating objects rather than designing them, tabula rasa, lead naturally to discussions of reference and quotation, translation and glitch. Inherent in the production of these imperfect replicas was a certain revelation not only that the machines which look and create new visions of the world but that the murky machinations of our own seeing and thinking systems contained limits and flaws. Neither should be expected to fit within the implied promises of boundlessness in technological utopianism. The stated goal of the project — to record and replicate all objects, to re-create everything with data — is obviously absurd. From there, it was no far leap to any avenue of discussion relevant to contemporary society — about ‘big data’, digital surveillance, smartphone and social media usage, etc. Here, the loop closes: from tangible 3D printed artifact (how interesting) to serious societal concerns (how terrifying) to common everyday habits (how plausible).
HDC: What about struggles or failures?
Some of the greatest challenges of the project went hand in hand with that sequence of conceptual leaps I had hoped for — just how much information, just how much of a cue, or a push, did I need to provide viewers without having to hold their hand or point to a chalkboard? If the 3D printed forms are, in fact, secondary, then what else did I need provide without being facile or didactic? How could I re-direct viewers away from considering the work as a series of sculptures (on podiums), or paintings (on the wall)? My work on designing a small artist book — information contained, but in the end maybe too contained — evolved into the system of tiny, dispersed installations I ended up with, which I thought was a more dynamic, open, and curious presentation, and was also more true to my ideas about the nature of information everywhere, levelled into a homogenous field of noise, potentially challenging our conceptions of influence and identity.
HDC: Can you expand on those ideas? You mentioned a ‘thesis’ earlier, as opposed simply to “areas of exploration” and “lines of inquiry”.
Absolutely. I believe that we are capable of defining our experience of life according to a dizzyingly complex and colorful array of factors. So I say the following not as a technological determinist myself, but with the concern that we may be leaving ourselves vulnerable to that possibility. I am claiming that the following conditions — and some may be greater leaps than others — may make it so.
One condition assumes that any phenomenological human experience of mediation (any experential instance or encounter with media) necessarily contains within it, and transmits to its user, whatever structural ‘code’ defines that experience (e.g. the ‘magical’ experience of a good oral storyteller being derived from a lineage of charismatic tricksters and mystics, the ‘contemplative’ experience of reading being derived from the slow, time-consuming process of translating symbols into thoughts, etc.).
Another condition considers that, in lieu of the presence of deeper, more consistent elements of culture — what may once have been represented by the church, and which, in a post-modern age of re-mix / re-cycle / retro fetishism, I’m not sure we have (other cultures with deeper histories and traditions, I think, face less vulnerability here) — in lieu of a greater organizing principle, we as a culture are left to fill that space with a dominant medium, which nominally allows us to choose for ourselves which sub-cultures and niche interests to engage with (and which, in our time as a secular, productive society may be represented by the mass-produced book, film, website, etc.). In other words, we assume as true Marshall McLuhan’s famous dictum that “the medium is the message”.
Another condition assumes that information technologies, more than any other distinct cultural force (medium, message, or otherwise), (a) currently delineate and demarcate our place in history and hold the most potential for changing the way we process and interpret the world, recall and create memories, form our identities and relate to others, in short, define what it is to be a human, and (b) therefore constitute those media which take the place of ‘message’.
Another condition assumes that the power and potential of these technologies is derived from our fundamental interactions with them in time and in space: (a) the vast amounts of time spent beholden to and ‘enframed’ within these technologies (i.e., our total inextricability from photography, phones, e-mail, and social media — to the point of Jean Baudrillard’s precession of simulacra, where the simulated is more real than the real; of Susan Sontag’s “everything exists to end in a photograph” and organizing your experience of life for the sake of it ending well in its mediated form; of the contemporary phenomenon of FOMO — ‘fear of missing out’ when away from social media; et cetera), and (b) the increasingly embodied, prosthetic nature of artificial cognition (e.g. the logic of interfaces, operating systems, and the collection, storage, analysis of data, etc.) and artificial perception (e.g. my favorite photogrammetric application, virtual reality as expressed by Oculus Rift, augmented reality as expressed by Google Glass, etc.).
Another condition assumes that this is all plausible because of its insidious nature — in a manner perhaps similar to my own ingratiation with 3D printing, where transformation occurs from within, gradually, naturally, complicitly, and completely — in other words, largely by virtue of the invisibility of their designs: their ease-of-use, their apparent harmlessness, and their propensity for neurological reward (like electronic morphine drips) working in concert to insert and integrate themselves entirely into our participatory consumption culture / service economy lifestyles (as opposed to an authoritarian, brute force usurpations of power in a productive industrial society — e.g. robot invasions, looms taking over craftsmen, etc.).
Another set of conditions considers our own vulnerabilities as active interpreters of sensory input and as conscious decision makers: (a) the nature of the digitally mediated experience is often marked by distraction arising from the fragmentation, atomization, and sheer quantity of information, all leveled into a homogenous, non-hierarchical collection of values — itself, ironically, derived from the predominant modern impulse to rationalize, quantify, create hierarchy, and otherwise mentally divide and conquer the known world — in other words, rationality in the extreme becomes irrationality, a ‘system’ in name only, incompatible with human scales of information processing, the need for narrative, and the meaningful creation of comprehensible value systems (recognizable signals among noise); (b) this paradox of choice (where too much choice may mean none at all) can become so overwhelming that we (grasping for something — anything — solid) fall back on our dominant medium in search of a solution — employing our cybernetic tools (from the depersonalized spectre of ‘big data’ to our own compulsive use of gadgets) to track, document, quantify, process, and deduce ‘everything’ for the purposes of ultimately funnelling, filtering, and automating our own decisions by predicting how we spend our time, what we like, what choices we will make, and therefore who we are and will be.
Taken to their logical conclusions, these constitute a set of conditions which leaves ourselves vulnerable to a state of unthinking — either as crazy (unthinking due to signal overload) or as stupid (unthinking due to bureaucratic complacency and predictability). Either way, we will have been made unable to choose, or act, or be — which means that we risk falling prey, of our own volition and at the same time unconsciously (very much more Huxleyian than Orwellian), to a post-human condition defined not (as advertised) by unlimited possibilities for freely choosing our identities and actions, but by protocol, control, determinism, and essence.
The human project will now be automated — which is bad enough in itself, but taken further, to a condition of collective unthinking (which mass media are so good at exploiting) leaves the sovereignty of human consciousness vulnerable to severe political abuse — as Hannah Arendt described in Eichmann in Jerusalem (the Nazi system of mundane, unthinking bureaucrats mechanically operating the banal functions handed down to them by their operators) — and therefore also vulnerable to facilitating mass complicity with evil.
HDC: Quick, message in a bottle!
Beware what’s popular; resist predictability; celebrate the glitch.
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