Flickr, Photosynth, And Strange Loops


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Presentation given at the "29th Annual Meeting of the Southwest/Texas Popular and American
Culture Association," February 2008

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Flickr, Photosynth, And Strange Loops

  1. 1. FLICKR, PHOTOSYNTH, AND STRANGE LOOPS Brian J. McNely Rhetoric and Writing Studies University of Texas at El Paso
  2. 2. <b>Slide Happy</b> (preliminary…) I’ll not be reading a paper, but I will be perhaps inundating you with slides. If it looks like I’m winging it, I’m not. Yet I apologize in advance any way. Before we proceed, here’s what I’m trying to do, in a nutshell: I aim to broaden a theory of recursion for RWS, looking specifically at how images are recursive, and how image aggregation and social taxonomies foster and constrain cross-cultural memory. <i>This clearly can’t be done in the next 15 minutes.</i>
  3. 3. <A Schematic> This presentation is organized around three core concepts, which are intricately imbricated within one another: ~Recursion Theory and Strange Loops~ ~Social Networking Applications & Folksonomies~ ~Aggregating Cross-Cultural Memory~
  4. 4. }What is Recursion? <ul><li>-The simple answer is that recursion is the process by which ~things~ are repeated in a self-similar way. </li></ul><ul><li>-Humans think recursively ; that is, we rely on recognizing complex patterns of previous thought to produce new thought. </li></ul>Fractal self-similarity—Shaviro, S. (2003), Mandelbrot, B. (2004). Drawing Hands , M.C. Escher, 1948
  5. 5. Wittgenstein, L. (1999). Philosophical Investigations.
  6. 6. Recursive Hermeneutics In order to see both duck and rabbit, we engage in a complex, though deceptively simple and seemingly instantaneous interpretive gesture; for lack of a better term, lets call this recursive hermeneutics. Yet while this hermeneutic ability is essential to basic human pattern recognition, agency, and response, for my purposes here, I’m more interested in what comes after interpretation, how recursive hermeneutics is but one step in the formulation of new knowledge .
  7. 7. Recursive Heuristics Jeff Hawkins (2004) argues that “the brain doesn’t compute the answers to problems; it retrieves the answers from memory […] the entire cortex is a memory system.” Further, he states that “our brains use stored memories to constantly make predictions about everything we see, feel, and hear […] what we perceive is a combination of what we sense and of our brains’ memory-derived predictions.” Perhaps most importantly, Hawkins suggests that “prediction is not just one of the things your brain does. It is the primary function of the neocortex, and the foundation of intelligence.”
  8. 8. “ Writing is recursive…” <ul><li>A mantra and commonplace of Process Theory is the idea that writing is recursive: </li></ul>Not only is this overly simplistic, it reduces and closes off the notion of recursion within RWS research. Recursion, as we’ll see, is not contained within the discrete steps of a process, but central to both human ontology and epistemology.
  9. 9. Rhetorical Invention Maureen Daly Goggin (2004), in surveying the history of needlework and sampler making as a conflation of visual and verbal rhetorics, argues that “sampler making served as a form of rhetorical invention,” that “early samplers served as the old from which the new can be fashioned.” While she doesn’t reference ideas from cognitive science and recursion theory, she makes a crucial (but tacit) point: Recursion is the fuel of rhetorical invention. By liberating recursion from the commonplace and articulating its role in invention, we acknowledge the profound role that previous (often unconscious) knowledge plays in the production of new knowledge.
  10. 11. Strange Loops <Video feedback loop> Hofstadter (2007) notes that “in the TV setup […] no perception takes place at any stage inside the loop. […] The TV loop is not a strange loop—it is just a feedback loop.” “ In any strange loop that gives rise to human [subjectivity] […] the level-shifting acts of perception, abstraction, and categorization are central, indispensible elements. It is the upward leap from raw stimuli to symbols that imbues a loop with ‘strangeness.’” Consciousness is a quintessentially strange loop. It is self-referential; it builds symbols and taxonomies.
  11. 12. Seeing and Representation <ul><li>… idea-thing-idea-thing-idea-thing… </li></ul><ul><li>Helmers (2004), drawing on Zizek, notes that “we are always rewriting history. […] We read the past as a symbol of ‘historical memory, retroactively giving the elements symbolic weight by including them in new textures—it is this elaboration that decides retroactively what they ‘will have been.’” </li></ul><ul><li>Seeing, memory, and representation feed (and are recursively constituted in) strange loops… </li></ul>
  12. 13. Moreville (2005), drawing on Hawkins, states that: “ Input begets output. Information shapes behavior.” “ Information is data that makes a difference, literally. It changes our minds, physically.” “ What we find changes who we become.” This, of course, loops us back to subjectivity…
  14. 15. Representing Materiality How do we represent the material world and material artifacts, visually, cognitively, linguistically? Flickr is an especially rich application for exploring this question, as its primary role engages all three modes (and many more…).
  15. 16. Fáilte spatialrhetorics! - Massive photo sharing application -Privileges “interestingness” through a unique proprietary algorithm -Encourages cross-cultural exchange -Foregrounds visual representation, yet is tremendously dependent on metadata and tagging (alphabetic representation): -how else to navigate even a fraction of what is available on the site? -“The old way creates a tree. The new rakes leaves together.” David Weinberger
  16. 17. (strange) Social Loops
  17. 18. Recursion~Memory~Folksonomy
  18. 19. Bottom Up Loops <ul><li>On tagging and other forms of metadata, David Sifry (2005), CEO of Technorati, states: </li></ul>“ Tags are a simple, yet powerful, social software innovation. Today millions of people are freely and openly assigning metadata to content and conversations. […] The ease of tagging for personal organization with social incentives leads to a rich and discoverable folksonomy [folks + taxonomy]. Intelligence is provided by real people from the bottom-up to aid social discovery.” Moreville (2005) notes that “tags are shared and become pivots for social navigation.” They “serve as threads that weave a disparate collection of objects together, […] creating an emergent category that’s defined from the bottom up: a folksonomy.”
  20. 21. Aggregating Information BTW: Humans are biology’s premier aggregators; this = “robust tracking”
  21. 22. Photosynth Microsoft’s Photosynth wants to be (and just might be) a killer app. Photosynth is essentially an aggregating application; it “scrapes Flickr” or aggregates other photo collections and constructs rich 3D models that are navigable and able to be parsed and “zoooooomed.” In short, Photosynth is visually impressive and technologically exciting, but it < rakes leaves together in the interests of creating trees .> Further, at this stage of development, the trees it creates are well-known landmarks…
  22. 23. More Hermeneutic, Less Heuristic? There is a certain sense in which Photosynth closes off recursive heuristics in the interest of providing you with an interpretation of what an artifact or structure is supposed to be . In this sense, there is a very real danger in hermeneutically aggregating cross-cultural memory: Who’s representation are we seeing when we elide individual perspectives in the interest of a 3D photoverse?
  23. 24. It’s the subjectivity, silly… If I leave the collaborative, social loops of Flickr, if my photos (my framing, my perspective) are simply glommed on to an intriguing algorithm, what happens to cross-cultural memory? How is my subjectivity (Foucault, Althusser, Foster) being likewise framed? How am I being interpellated by Photosynth? How will I view the perspectives of alterity (as opposed to how I might view them in Flickr)?
  24. 25. Aggregating/Regulating Memory As fascinating and potentially useful as Photosynth may be, what is the cost of normalizing cross-cultural representations? Will Photosynth stifle the potential of recursive heuristics? In Reading Pictures , Albert Manguel (2000) reminds us that “no story elicited by an image is final or exclusive, and measures of correctness vary according to the same circumstances that give rise to the story itself.”
  25. 26. Postmodern Modernism <ul><li>Helmers (2004) suggests that “just as the artist worked within a cultural situation that shaped the work of art, the viewer operates from within a cultural situation that enables particular responses at particular times. Viewing is a transactional process.” </li></ul><ul><li>Photosynth, it seems, mediates that transaction, disrupting the (potential) loop. </li></ul><ul><li>Zelizer (1998) argues that “collective memories allow for the fabrication, rearrangement, elaboration, and omission of details about the past, often pushing aside accuracy and authenticity so as to accommodate broader issues of identity formation, power and authority, and political affiliation.” </li></ul>
  26. 27. Top Down Structure Following Lyotard, it seems that Photosynth circumvents the loops that are crucial to both recursive hermeneutics and heuristics, as if in the process of aggregating petites histoires, a new grand narrative fills the frame. But I’m sure that I’m missing something… Questions?