August 10, 2004

Steve Mann

As promised, I'll be uploading some of my reviews of the various talks from TransVision, which basically turned out to be a conference on future technologies of all sorts, sponsored by various peoples who want to usher in those technologies for the betterment of humankind. I wrote this one the day I saw the talk, but after this I'm likely to be slow on the uploads since I'm writing up something to go with my photographs, and I only have written notes on all the subsequent talks. I've got too much to do, and come Thursday I'll be sporadically unavailable again for the Skeptic's Toolbox. I haven't been to yoga in 3 weeks, and I'm starting to feel the effects of all this stress!

On the up side, I just heard from someone who heard my talk in Toronto and wants to publish a version in The Humanist.

So much to do!

Following is a very long discussion of the Keynote speech given by Steve Mann, aka "the world's pre-eminent cyborg".

Very long review follows!

TransVision began in earnest today, with the opening Keynote Speech by Steve Mann called "Glogging: Sousveillance, Cyborglogs, and the right to self-modification".

As a preface, it should be noted that Mann is often referred to as "The world's pre-eminent cyborg". He has several bodily enhancements, the most notable of which is his visual system enhancement. The actual specifics of his glasses were a bit beyond me, as he really skimmed the science (but the plans for the glasses are free to the public for anyone who wants to make their own - I'm just still not 100% clear how they work.) I do know that the frames are what do all the work, and the lenses are completely decorative (the reverse of which is true for most people's eyeglasses). What's more notable about his glasses, aside from their innovative functionality, is that they also broadcast and record everything he sees, all the time.

One of two screens behind the stage tonight was often just showing the display of his broadcast, and it was extremely fascinating. Just watching him drink orange juice was a new experience! As he was introduced, at length, by his colleague Rob Logan in the McLuhan Program here at the University of Toronto, it was increasingly difficult to listen to the other man speak simply because there was a display behind him of everything Mann was looking at. As his introduction dragged on a bit, Mann picked up a small notebook and began taking down all sorts of notes, often relating to the things Logan was talking about. So, for example, as Logan discussed the alphabet, Mann was scribbling notes on a pad that said:
(greek alpha) bit
21264 bit

So my attention was already stretched between attending to his introducer and watching what he was writing, and I realized I chose correctly when Logan was talking about the early web space and said, "What is that browser? You remember... Oh right, Netscape," only to have the word "MOSAIC" appear in giant letters on the screen behind him as Steve Mann scribbled it on his notepad. (We all laughed, and poor Rob Logan had no idea why.)

Anyway, Steve Mann gave an extremely entertaining, insightful, and significant talk on cyborg technologies. (You would all have really enjoyed the extensive video I thought I was taking, but apparently even the technologically advanced can be inept with a new camera. Which, when you think about it, practically sells Steve Mann's argument for him. I'm a billboard for the need to glog.)

Mann spent some time arguing for HI instead of AI, and actively calling AI theorists to task. He promotes HI (humanistic intelligence) as intelligence that arises technologically with the human being in the feedback loop. So while AI is meant to be beyond us, HI is an enhanced us. (He claims that computers are for us, and hence AI isn't going to happen. I'd love to argue with him, but since almost everyone actively working in AI today is on the wrong path by my accounts, I could only argue theory with him, and I really don't want to be the person to argue technological theory with the guy who is anything but talk in that dept.)

He also mentioned a distaste for (or disagreement with?) the notion of the cyborg as an augmentation of the human. He prefers these technologies to be mediating rather than augmenting. I actually worried he would neglect the overwhelming mediation he experiences with his apparatus, but he came out waving it as a banner. I would normally hesitate to sing the praises of technology that interrupts and reorganizes my life to such an extent that my moment-to-moment experiences are drastically altered, but his arguments were extremely well articulated and presented, and I actually got excited for the idea.

Anyway, at least partially his enhancements were borne of some necessity. I'm unclear on the extent of his visual impairment, but I did glean that the Eye-tap glasses were deemed a functional necessity. They appear to take in heat and transform it into laser light which is projected onto his retina. Or some variation of that theme. He did more or less claim that he could see in total darkness with them on, which is pretty damn cool. I wasn't entirely clear on whether or not the projections we saw on the screen behind him, which have been used and recorded for what appeared to be a decade, were actually what he sees, or just a projection from his glasses. (Hence "glogging": cyborg logging; a constant record of an individual's experiences). I get the impression that what we saw is actually what he sees, but as my new skeptic friend pointed out, when he blinks the feed isn't interrupted, so who knows? I also wasn't entirely clear if they follow his gaze or his head movements. I'm guessing a lot of this is explained in one of his books, where he gives the details of the technology. I'm actually planning to read some of his work now that I've seen the tech in action and recognize it isn't ridiculous or nonsensical in any way.

He clearly acknowledges that he sees a computer-mediated reality; a modified version of what is really there. I actually admit that my current academic department must be getting to me, because I sort of twinged at the notion that he doesn't get to experience anything without the machinery adding its input. But now, with a clearer head, I can't imagine a decent argument for why that's such a bad thing. We ourselves have mediating hardware, our bodies, that give us a certain spin on the world we have access to, so perhaps further mediating this with the technology of his choice isn't actually changing things in any significantly philosophical way. In fact, it really is living the transhuman ideal: to take the next step of environmental adaptation and augment the body wherever it finds itself lacking.

A cool side effect is that when he gets a big group of people together using this technology, they can modify the visual reality that one another experience. He calls it a cyborg collective, and in fact he claims to have entirely switched perspectives with someone else (meaning they saw what he saw, and he saw what they saw, simultaneously.) I imagine that to be a taxing experience.

One of the most amazing and laudable side effects of these glasses has to be the filtering abilities. You can actually filter out the noise of the world and replace it with something more agreeable as you see fit. He showed us an advertisement that was distracting and invasive, on a street corner, and then showed us how the glasses can act as a filter to change what he sees when he views that sign. Billboards everywhere can be replaced by something more agreeable to the visual (or philosophical) system.

One of the greatest things he rallied for was software-free computing. He uses linux in his homemade technologies and avoids using anything commercial at all, keeping all of this free for adaptation by the public. He was quite clear that this is the way it should be, but added in a few amusing potential scenarios. Imagine Pepsi giving away the glasses for free, and filtering every Coke ad into a Pepsi ad when you look at it. Or renting out the lower quadrant of the lenses to the highest bidder, etc. You get the idea. But as long as the technology is free and open source, hypothetically no one should be suckered into accepting the Pepsi version. (Of course, I've seen what some people are willing to be suckered into, so...)

He demonstrated another of his technologies, called "light vector painting," which turned out to be a very cool artistic tool via a "dustbox". Art (even very cool posthuman art) isn't really a domain I feel comfortable talking much about, but I can safely say I was duly impressed with what he was able to do as an entirely new form of expression via technology. You'll have to go elsewhere to really learn about the artistic aspects of what he does.

In addition to the functional aspects of his enhancements, Mann discussed the adverse reactions he's experienced since he started this work 20-30 years ago. He said early on, he felt a large degree of peer discrimination, but that's faded. The institutionalized discrimination, however, has greatly increased. Every time he goes someplace with surveillance cameras, he is greeted with a great deal of resistance because of his own recording devices. So, in response to the oppressive surveillance ("over-sight"), he seems to be calling for a revolution of sousveillance ("watching from below"). He seeks a balance between the eye in the sky and the eye on the ground, and calls this balance "equiveillance". He had some wonderful footage to show of an experience with Sears security guards and their cameras, with a bit of retaliation via his own cameras. (None of which I apparently managed to record on my own camera.) He tells a great anecdote about fitting individuals for glasses such as his. When they ask "do these need to record?" he generally responds with, "well, you're now more likely to get assaulted because you wear them, so I would say absolutely you ought to record all the time. It's great evidence for when you need to press charges."

It's an amusing tale, but it says a lot about the state of augmentation in today's society. Everything that's different is unwelcome, overall. Unfortunately, some of the neuroscience relating to mirror neurons may go some distance to explaining this (this is me talking now - Mann doesn't talk about neuroscience!) But if we have neurons that fire in some sort of empathy whenever other people are performing actions we are familiar with, then it stands to reason we would feel less empathy and less able to imagine experiences that deal with body parts we don't have. Our neurons can't extrapolate that sort of appendage, and some of the research shows that even young babies will react different to a fleshy arm than a metallic arm performing the same actions. Resistance to cyborg technologies may be built into our bodies at a very deep and relatively unknown level. (Perhaps I'll give that talk next year! Someone remind me!!)

Anyway, overall, Mann's talk was extremely fascinating, and it actually went a long way in further legitimizing the project of technological augmentation or mediation, be it for need or desire. (And it greatly helped that he whipped out a tie at one point with a glass dome "eye in the sky" attached to it in rebellion to the state of surveillance. Even more fantastic was his female version - a sports bra with an eye in the sky camera dome over each breast. Fully functional with a 9 volt battery! Just wait until someone decides they don't want to be on camera and tries to cover those up! He actually had quite a few obnoxious things to show how ridiculous people in general are, including a t-shirt that said "For your protection, you and your establishment may be recorded and transmitted to remote locations," fully equipped with a little screen area. The best part of that story is that several of these t-shirts were made, some of which were real and actually transmitted the video in a live feed to the web. Then they went to a casino. No one stopped them. "Security guards aren't paid to read t-shirts". Brilliant.

He claims to have gone "from a geek to a philosopher", having begun all of this for much geekier reasons than one might want to admit, but the entire experience having brought him some amazing insights about the nature of experience and politics.

When asked if these technologies won't eventually just take over and make normal experience obsolete, his elegant response was, "Shoes and clothing damage our ability to survive naked in the wilderness."

Very well done.

Posted by firepile at August 10, 2004 05:45 PM

Not a real cyborg. A real cyborg can't be separated from their enhancements:

Posted by: Randall at August 12, 2004 12:56 PM

Haha, I saw that article earlier - I didn't realize BoingBoing had picked it up too.

He actually can't be separated from his enhancement, insofar as if he's asked to remove his glasses, he can't see. (Any time someone tries to force him to, he tells them they have to sign a waiver holding themselves responsible if he falls down stairs).

He's had neural implants as well in his occipital lobe, and I think he's had bits of hardware in other parts of his body, but he's upgraded past most of them at this point, from what I can tell.

I didn't know that much about him before I went into his talk, but I was really impressed at the end. (I always think of Kevin Warwick as the worlds pre-eminent cyborg, but it looks like these 2 could Cyborg Deathmatch for the title).

Posted by: Robn at August 12, 2004 02:03 PM

Yeah - but their "enhancements" are too techno-geek to force the singularity. If they *really* want to push the envelope, they'll design gastro-intestinal calorie-engines to power our synth-systems and regulate our consumption to fat storage ratios; butt-cheeks that fold out into camp stools; and male "enhancements" with interchangeable attachments (talk about "hot-swap-able!"). That's how you really start a revolution: give the people what they want. They don't want cameras transmitting every time they discretely check out the hot barista at the local Starpukes. They want X-ray specs and instant Charles Atlas physiques (without all the hard work and homoerotic overtones).

Posted by: Randall at August 12, 2004 02:48 PM

Believe me, people are working on it!!!

Posted by: Robn at August 12, 2004 09:51 PM
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