At no point in my life have I had a healthy relationship with Shame. It is a force of nature, or maybe even an expanse of nature, such as a wood or a desert or an ocean that consumes all would be travelers within its relentless stomach. Often I have approached the edge of shame and even marched far enough into its maw to lose sight of the safety I left behind me, but never have I done so unequipped or unattended. It isn’t that I am a coward but rather that I lack courage enough to bare myself to the elements of Shame. Like biting cold or scorching heat, it tears away at me and I find myself unable to live in the element. Shame is a demon. It is a god. It is an Authority of immense breadth, and it has maintained tyranny over my psyche for my entire life. It sets its claim over me as my master and shall maintain that stance until I master my relationship with it.
Shame in my life is less an obstacle in my way and more of an obstacle course. The field is itself riddled with several more discrete obstacles all about it. Memories, inner voices, culture, belonging, remnants of Guilt and Fear, and the gaze of others all litter the landscape and present their own unique challenge and distinct pain. Through means of cartography, I know what exists on the other end of this boundary were I to traverse it. Love. Esteem. The chance to properly grieve. Vulnerable intimacy. A fulfilling livelihood. And the chance to exercise my authentic will in both selfish and charitable ways without the ceaseless cacophony of my inner monsters. Without consistent utterance of my worthlessness, my sinfulness, and my irredeemable case of humanity. As it is, staying as I am without conquering the wilderness of Shame will only continue to bring me self-loathing, a career I fail to identify with, and unhealthy submissiveness.
As is the case with most things (once left to their own for long enough), Shame has manifested in my life as very real and sometimes tangible representations. Shame has often and has again driven me to self-incrimination even where Guilt hasn’t fastened itself. I’ve experienced this with family, in businesses, and most presently in relationships and with the law. These representations need to addressed by understanding where my guilt is rather than feeling ashamed simply for being less than I would aspire. Shame also bars me from occupation. Not only have I been unwilling to change my career into one that best suits me out of embarrassment, but I have also been too ashamed to request work from new clients or request my payments from those I have done work for. Finally, shame keeps me from intimacy. The truth is that I don’t feel worthy of love and I so don’t actively seek relationships that would serve me. Instead I accept the ones that come, and often they come with abuse.
I have to overcome Shame. I have to overcome my expectations and standards for myself, because they will never be realistic or perhaps even ever attainable. Doubtlessly, I need to learn how to love myself. I need to find something in myself to love and something about myself worth protecting from the many tribulations I have invited to myself. Once that is done, I have a very specific need to claim my identity. I’m not a martyr nor a victim but I don’t claim the identity of a hero or a victor. This lack of resolute identity or ownership of my strength leaves me floundering in a sea of my unresolved problems. Presently I suppose all I need to do is convince myself and a judge. What I’m sure of is that I am unsure of myself and that once I’m certain that I am a firm footing to stand on I can tread forward in an affirmative way.
It isn’t in my nature to use an obstacle as an excuse the avoid a task, but I have been known to take the more difficult path forward in avoidance of the painful necessity. I regret the slower roads despite the insights I have found along them simply because I know that it has been my choice not to resolve my difficulties. It isn’t fear, but rather, disgust that is directing my feet in this instance, which is just one leg of a long instance of my developmental life. In this particular instance. Surely, however, I am integrating my many separated splinters through ritual and habituation. If nothing else, I’m beginning to feel comfortable with myself. I may not win against my aggressors, but I may very well conquer Shame this way. This has been my greatest obstacle in life, so it is paramount that I capture this momentum and carry it forward.
Sometimes you don’t realize that your life is poetry until you notice the stanzas. I started recording my thoughts together, particularly here, with a two-fold purpose: stitch a semblance of a narrative together from my scattered thoughts, and to figure out what character I was in that narrative. The latter proved far more of a struggle, due largely to the baggage that comes with being a human in even the broadest sense. There was simply too much “self-ness” in the being bucket to discern what parts were authentically me and what was simply getting dragged along. I heard a phrase once quoted from a yogi I don’t remember the name of which declared that only through constant self-annihilation can we discover the indestructible truth of who we really are. In April of 2019, I set the charges to self-destruct my own ego and in April of 2020, I detonated them. The resulting mess was substantial and dwarfed only by the resulting message. The previous stanza —
Over the past year, I have experienced and accomplished extraordinary oddness, at least for me. I don’t have the energy nor the bravery to expound deeply in detail in this article alone. Suffice to say it involved inexplicable and unexpected involvement with politics, scandal, activism, nearly para-military organization, world-wide catastrophe, jail, and esoterism, all of which I impressively survived largely unscathed. Actually no, not unscathed. I emerged scarred mentally and to a lesser extent physically, destroyed in several aspects and reinforced in others. Despite that, more than enough of me survived to teach me valuable lessons, some about who I am and a great deal more about who I am not. While there were truly lovely circumstances over that year, I would be lying against myself if I said that it wasn’t a terrific gauntlet of pain and suffering. Even still, in what might be either to most direct or indirect of ways, I’ve succeeded in clarifying my identity through the very thorough event of annihilation.
As I type I am working through a mood stabilizer which keeps me quite unable to track my own thoughts through a coherent narrative. If there were anything that made it hard to tell a story, that would be it. And yet, the conditions I currently live in, the strings of causality that conjured them, and the heaviness of the entire scenario makes it so that is barely an issue. I couldn’t imagine not knowing where I am or how I got here. My narrative is baked in my present, and my every breath is a forensic lab report describing the bizarre worldwide and personal events of 2020. Ironic that I would end 2020 without focus. Apropos that I would end 2020 with such sharp clarity. I seldom know if I am in the tragedy or comedy anymore, but at least I know my character and his role. Interestingly enough, though it seems to breach my previously established theories of mind and several takeaways from any number of Joseph Campbell books, I turned out to not be the hero of my story. As it so happens, I’m the audience insert. I am Doctor Watson. Call me Ishmael. I’ve been here to tell the story all along, not to live it.
I have, through one device or another, been trying my best to remove myself from the story. In childhood I had an obsession with the invisible hand. The idea that my life would be happier, and even more purposeful, if I were some ethereal being that participated in the world through untraceable action. To have no body and no voice. Appropriately enough for the Christmas season (It’s December 10th as I write this) I often remember the Rankin Bass Christmas special Jack Frost. Jack is a spirit of, as insinuated, frost. He coats leaves with shimmering ice, freezes the surface of the lakes, and even interacts with humans who can neither hear nor see him by nipping the tip of their noses with Winter chill. Apart from that, he is a non-agent, relegated to be essentially “other” from the world at large. This isn’t because I ever wanted to not deal with others. On the contrary, I like and actually love others and very much enjoy being in the human world. Rather, it’s because I have never felt quite human enough to be considered human in the human world.
When you don’t quite feel like others, and yet are expected to feel like others, and certainly to act like others, existing takes on a substantial eight and resistance. It is in these times that I am well acquainted with the phenomenon in which Hell is other people. This Hell is less characterized by the fires and smoke of Gehenna, and more with the chains, shackles, and iron bars that represent expectation itself, as well as its cousin, obligation. These things aren’t inherently bad or bothersome, especially seeing as they are among the threads that weave the fabric of social cohesion. The issue is that they seem, more often than not, detrimentally misassigned. The aforementioned Jack Frost fell in love with a mortal woman who claimed that she loved Winter dearly, and more than anything she loved Jack Frost. He petitioned with Father Winter to make him human so that he might love her properly, and when granted, he found himself awkwardly too inhuman for the masquerade. The funny thing is that in a lot of ways, he could never love her properly as a human. She loved Jack Frost the spirit, and the spirit is what he properly was. His life was doomed, on one side of the veil or the other, to disquietude.
Over the past year the story caught up with me. I can’t pose as the nameless narrator or the disembodied declaimer. The weight of the words and the pressure of the paragraphs crashed down on me hard and fast enough to remind me with certainty that I am no ethereal spirit. That hiding from my agency wasn’t an option anymore. That was the coward’s way out of self-annihilation, and no, freshly re-embodied, I was to be thrown into the cauldron. After losing a lot and suffering considerable psychological and spiritual “processing,” I am, or at least I feel, ready to assume my role actively. It was the metaphor that finally made it clear. The constant use of symbols and ideas I placed to distance myself from the description that helped me realized it was a poem. It was the pattern of the stanzas, the December collapse, April recovery, and July re-invention, for me to recognize its structure. I always felt like a misfit in my own narrative, like I didn’t rhyme with anything, so I omitted myself my page. This year perhaps at last gave me the vocabulary to belong amongst my own thoughts. If not, at least now I know, I couldn’t run from this work because I was always the title of this piece all along.
Abigail knew very well what she had done. It lied somewhere in the thin line between intention and reaction. She knew he deserves to be hurt but didn’t realize until it had been done but she was going to be the agent of that pain. Regardless, it had happened. That meant, at least to Abigail, that it was meant to happen.
Abigail was an extremely interesting woman. For one, she had never met another Abigail. Secondly, she was a practitioner of a nameless faith. she didn’t believe that her faith needed a name or needed any named deities. She prayed and when she did she spoke to “the Universe” and it was certain that it listened. It was her absolute authority.
Authority was immensely important. Without a standing authority, phrases like “everything happens for a reason” didn’t stand stiffly enough. Authority needed to be in place to assign these good reasons. A decider. She wasn’t a woman without trauma, and this design helped her to be at peace with the life she received. It wasn’t arbitrary, neither was it cruel. She also wasn’t cruel for what she had just done. It was an act of cosmic necessity.
His nose was still bleeding even while Abigail walked away. Incredulous profanity poured from his face far faster than the blood. She paid no mind to it. Actually, in her heart, she even said a blessing to him. Wishing him peace. Wishing that he’d come to know better. Abigail abhors violence and harm of any sort. As a practitioner of yoga, she follows a concept called ahimsa, which means not to harm. That’s why she absolutely had to do what she did.
She was walking past the City Market, just a few minutes away from the college. She wore a Bohemian skirt and carried a book against her chest with her arms across it. It was an international studies textbook. She was a student at the college at the time. It was both her favorite and least favorite series of courses. She loved the idea of being a global citizen but hated the politics of war and killing that surrounded global awareness.
“What the fuck is this ugly bug?”
The man had yelled at the sight of a wheel bug crawling from some brush on the sidewalk. A few steps ahead of him. She turned with her brow raised at the sound of the exclamation to see him step on the bug with a stomp. She asked herself what drove him to kill. “Oh my God, what the hell is wrong with you? Why did you do that?!” Abagail screamed, her stance stern, almost maternal. Disciplinary. That should have been his first warning.
“Because it was an ugly ass bug,” the man started. He didn’t get to finish. The answer was enough for Abigail. He didn’t have a reason. He saw something he didn’t like and so he killed it. He’s just like a war monger. The kind she couldn’t forgive. That’s when she threw the book at him. It hit him squarely in the nose with the force 75 years of geo-political strife.
She never minded the disciplinary follow-through. She knew she was validated and that what that man did was wrong. That was 16 years ago. She’d nearly forgotten it, honestly. There was a dead bug on the ground in front of the City Market again. The sight filled her with a sense of sorrow. Mid-stride, she reflected. It is sad, but it will be okay. Because karma is justice. And everything happens for a reason.
Spiritual idealists have been trying to claim observations of the natural world as proof of the ether since lightning and thunder first made us piss our loincloths. And as each generation turns, what science has continuously proven is that the natural worlds, both of Newton and of Einstein, do not need a spirit to intervene and make it work.
Sure, there’s a great series of correspondences here. Newton’s laws correlate with Karma. Relativity mirrors alchemy and laws of vibration. Wave function collapse theory is a great metaphor for the power of clairvoyance. But that’s what it is. A metaphor. And it’s where we should be comfortable leaving it.
Spirituality, for a large part, is sublime and subtle. It loses integrity in the hardlines and sharp definitions of science. That isn’t a weakness. It’s actually a fundamental quality of the world. Am I my body? If so at what point do I end? Am I my microbiome? These aren’t answerable questions, but the answer isn’t the point. The gaping hole left by the un-answerability speaks to the truth of the natural world. A truth that science not only can’t explain but is actually quite unconcerned with.
Here’s your enlightenment: if you need to prove that the spirit exists to yourself, then your connection to spirit was too fragile to begin with. That fragility shouldn’t be shimmed by intrinsically weak logic or false statements. In fighting to make the case for it we end up with pseudoscience and superficial spiritual systems, both of which fail to produce the depth and purity of effect of their more rigorous counterparts.
Science is our observation of the natural world. Spirit is that we observe at all. And that’s enough.
Science answers how. Spirit is awed by why. And that’s enough.
Science is the fact that things happen. Spirit is the wisdom that it means something. And guess what. That’s enough.
If you really want to help demonstrate the reality of spirituality, lead someone down a spiritual journey. Teach them how to open their awareness to the present. Make them listen to Colors of the Wind while using hallucinogens. But don’t turn reserved scientific words and unvalidated reports into “proof” of the unknowable. Trying to force shut false Cartesian dichotomies by appropriating precise sciences and leveraging the general population’s ignorance of how quantum math works and the apparent paradoxes thereof is foolish. It’s MANIPULATIVE at best and SPIRITUALLY BACKWARDS at worst. That’s not to mention the very real and measurable damage it does to science which needs a sterile and ethically unbiased environment to do its job.
I’m sorry. I know it’s convenient to do it. And I know you do it because most of you are scared. You’re scared that science is totally correct and is the only paradigm the world needs. You’re afraid that if you don’t claim some corner or scrap of what scientific observation has that you will lose what seems to be an age-old war. But let me assure you of something. If you continue to attempt “God of the gaps” tactics, you will run out of credibility before you even run out of gaps. And then you will lose. Which is a shame because the world honestly needs spirit. It needs wonder. It needs to bathe in the sea of experience.
So please, read this and repeat after me because we will all be better for it if we understand that suspending experience in blissful wonder is really what we’re mostly meant to do: “simply observing that I am is enough to validate my soul.” There, you can release all that anxiety now.
I believe in a sustainable society and a content, well taken care of citizenry. I believe in abundance and fair distribution of resources based on the value of human life, not the value of the resources. I believe in an informed and educated public. I believe in dignity for all regardless of their social or financial class. But none of that matters.
Belief is an antique of civilization. An artifact of a time before my birth. The question is, is this world possible? I don’t know. The question is, is this world viable? I don’t know. The question is, is this world deserved? I don’t know. But this world is the answer. An answer so loud that the questions hush at their punctuation. We must act to make these things inevitable. Because I neither need to know Nor believe To understand that a world that exploits man or nature with blind avarice is a world that is wrong.
I love the idea of, well, ideas. The concept of concepts. That we can hold the seed of a thought in our minds and culture it from a mere sprout into a tree of knowledge. There is very little that is more abstract than an idea and at the same time few things as influential. If you couldn’t tell, I’m an idea guy. You could even say it’s who I am. In modern times ideas have taken on a whole new life. There’s an entire economy around ideas – creating, developing, and trading them. The leaders in this idea economy have become a type of hero. They are heroes whose stories and autobiographies are read by followers and aspiring future leaders. With regard to these entrepreneurs and founders, It is considered among one of the highest and most lucrative honors to be the patron of a great idea. Like an Olympic torch bearer carrying it all the way to a glorious execution.
The Iconography of Ideas
When I think of ideas, I think of the cartoon lightbulb over a person’s head. What more quickly evokes the vision of someone who has just been struck by inspiration? This has been the de facto symbol of having an idea for a very long time. It hasn’t been forever, though. Over the course of human history, the lightbulb is fairly recent. Just about 150 years old. If that’s the case, how did we indicate a bright idea before that? What iconography denoted someone who was suddenly hit by a stroke of brilliance? Maybe it wasn’t that different from what we use currently.
For centuries and across cultures, the halo has been used to signify a person who has been enlightened. From Christ to Krishna this depiction was the artistic representation of someone filled by a special type of spirit. Well, how else do you get a great idea except through inspiration? That’s exactly what inspiration means, “filled with the spirit.” And when you’re passionate about an idea, aren’t you enthused? Well, enthused means to be “filled with God.” What if the lightbulb is just a modern halo? If so, when you have an idea, especially an important one, doesn’t that make you a saint of the idea? Isn’t your mission to carry this idea out? And what idea can be more important to me than the idea of who I am? I want to be the patron of a great idea, as are the leaders and heroes of modern culture. I want that great idea to be myself.
Being My Own Great Idea
So to stretch the metaphor a bit further, if inspiration is a touch of the divine and carrying a great idea is like sainthood, then I want when my halo burns brightly that I am the patron saint of something meaningful. This has been a large part of my search for a refined sense of identity. I want to know what I stand for, what single cause my life will represent and be able to usher that idea into reality. Perhaps my obvious obsession with identity and the experience of being mean that I should focus on the study of the “self” as a philosopher. That is if I could ever consider myself qualified. Maybe the search itself is a distraction. Or maybe, by developing myself into a more potent human, my life can be meaningful enough to affect others in a great, positive way.
Either way, the quest of understanding myself, and by proxy understanding, the universe is a holy action to me. I consider the “self” sacred, in every case, and the being a temple to the self. Adopting religious terminology and iconography seems appropriate because of how strongly I feel regarding the subject and the level of devotion I hope to give it. In order to claim to care as much as I have been claiming, I need to follow through with measurable and meaningful activity. But how does one birth himself? What needs to be done to manifest an identity that itself manifests good and meaningful works? And are both of those results really one action?
Waiting For the Answers
I am not sure there is much to come from asking these questions. Generally speaking, I know what I want for myself and I also know why, so I can act on those desires. The problem comes when I ask what I am best suited to live for in skill, opportunity, and passion. There is a term for this intersection called ikigai that describes where your livelihood meets what the world needs of you, but what I’m looking for isn’t quite this. Something in me wants a more predestined calling, which I suppose can’t be escaped when you adopt spiritualism as the language of your worldview. Whether or not this is dangerous I’m unsure, but for now, I will continue to work beyond the world of phenomenon and try to find an answer in the world of ideals and abstract concepts. After all, I love the very idea of, well, ideas.
I love organizing ideas. If you are working on a big idea and need help organizing your thoughts, jump on a free call with me and let’s sort it out!
Wired Magazine reported that San Francisco has banned private law enforcement’s use of facial recognition technologies. It should be noted that this doesn’t affect private sector use of the same technologies. You can still unlock your phone with a wink and a glance and Google Glass junkies can safely look up who you are. It also doesn’t affect federal law enforcement. The event comes at the decision that any benefits that may come from this technology do not offset the risk of unreasonable, weaponized surveillance. In other words, legislators watched the movie Minority Report one time and felt appropriately uncomfortable.
To consider some of the mindsets involved in this ban, it can be important to remember the sizeable effect that fast-paced, advanced startup technologies have in the Bay Area. That part of the country in particular deals with the bleeding edge of artificial intelligence and data processing capabilities as a matter of fact. This gives them a vantage that offers strong faith in the capabilities of the tools and tech and a sane wariness of the speed at which it evolves. If you’ve ever been automatically tagged in a Facebook book photo because the platform recognized your face, it’s like that except there’s a cop browsing the photos.
Let’s Talk Benefits
There are certainly benefits to technologies like facial recognition in law enforcement. However, does the benefit outweigh the risk or potential cost? Is this an illusion of safety or can lives really be saved here? Nationwide there are about 5 or 6 daily unsolved missing person cases in the US. To be able to easily track and locate individuals that have disappeared, or quickly find suspects of crime seems easily worth it. Personally, if one of my daughters went missing I’d ask the cops to turn on all cameras right then.
Let’s further note that there are the human resources freed from conventional forms of investigative leg work through the use of these technologies. This means that suspects of violent crime could be more quickly identified and brought to justice. However, while facial recognition is powerful it isn’t flawless. The likelihood of mistakes is probably lower than that of suspect lineups, but certainly not zero. Further, dataset bias may become responsible for a digital form of racial or class profiling.
That being said, it is probably more beneficial than harmful to utilize these technologies limiting to the two use cases above. Human-machine hybrid partnerships has already proven exceedingly effective in fields like medicine in which IBM Watson powered machines are hugely accurate at identifying cancerous cells, outperforming solo human counterparts at avoiding false negatives. Could such a futuristic buddy cop combination prove better at finding missing persons or identifying and apprehending suspects of violent crime or theft?
AI Police State
It is necessary to ask if there is a real threat from local law enforcement having access to these technologies. A police state is generally regarded as an unpalatable thing in the United States. It is defined as “a totalitarian state controlled by a political police force that secretly supervises the citizens’ activities” [Google Dictionary]. Whether or not facial recognition in the hands of a local police force leads to totalitarianism is debatable (it’s unlikely), but what *is* intuitive is that modern machines’ abilities to connect the dots can be used to create fictitious cases against the citizenry with ease.
Algorithms could be designed that make it easy to detain innocent citizens, and due to phenomena like AI bias, they wouldn’t even need to be designed intentionally for this purpose. For example, predictive analytics can be used to determine the likelihood that an individual, let’s say you, might commit a crime. It isn’t important whether or not you did or would, what is important is that as an individual for whom a court has reasonable cause to suspect you could be searched and seized. Further, this is a scenario without personal malice. Using facial recognition, cases and arrests could be made against any sort of rabble-rouser, from activists to political opposition.
Private vs. Public Implications
One might ask what the difference is between public institutions using readily available civilian technology and private ones, especially when those private companies already track over 2 billion of the world’s population. Well, it might be hard for you to do (hard being an understatement), but you *can* opt out of using commercial platforms like Facebook or Google. You can also make a purchasing decision on the devices you use and their capabilities. Really, one of the key things free market capitalism provides is the ability for consumers to change the sway of corporate decisions by making something unfashionable. You can also politic for government intervention when corporate powers become too mighty.
Opting out of municipal government is difficult, and it is unethical to force someone to do so. Further, where creating a new privacy-friendly Facebook competitor might be close to impossible, I assure you creating a new government is much harder. Unfashionable products end with new products. Unfashionable governments end in street riots. While we still believe in avoiding unreasonable search and seizure, we need to keep sacred what the term “unreasonable” means. Finally, outside of policymaking, we have very little say as to where surveillance cams and processing servers can and can’t go. You’d essentially be asking the system to change itself on your behalf. This is a reasonable request for a citizen to make of their local government and law enforcement, but not in a world where rabble-rousers can have an AI-generated rap sheet produced based on their arbitrarily tracked behaviors.
Effort and Resistance
One could argue the very good point that the methods being used are no different than the investigative methods already implemented now. The only difference is the speed and coverage of investigative data processing. However, it is exactly this speed that truly concerns most people. At least at the subconscious level. Part of the comfort we feel with current policing is that of its finite available effort and attention. In other words, only so much policing can be done in a given amount of time by a given amount of people. All laws aren’t infinitely enforceable.
The effectiveness at which a large deployment of facial recognition database connected public cameras could potentially search and identify individuals breaks down that barrier of effort. There are people who remain innocent simply because of the effort and the consequences of committing a crime. Similarly, there are crimes that go unsolved or even unaddressed because of the effort and resources that would be required to chase after the criminals. That resistance of effort is a type of safety net. When government powers become strong enough to overcome such resistance of effort, the citizens, out of distrust, tend to themselves become the resistance.
Imagine the not entirely unlikely scenario of having enough data to connect an individual to multiple minor infractions. Jaywalking, downloading a copy of the latest Marvel movie, or simply placing them in proximity to enough illegal activity to raise an eyebrow. This collection of information could be used against that individual. It is in fact how Al Capone was eventually put away. While he couldn’t be arrested for racketeering, they found sufficient infraction in tax evasion to do the job. Now I’m not saying that the average person is a modern-day Al Capone, or that there is enough interest to put people in prison for 127 counts of jaywalking, however, a threat does exist so long as there is any financial incentive in fining or incarcerating citizens. If you have ever been caught by a traffic light cam, just imagine this phenomenon extended pretty much anywhere a camera could sit.
Changing the Narrative
The above scenario is a bit sensationalist and it is honestly unlikely for it to go completely out of control. However, so long as mostly innocent people feel unprotected and even at odds with municipal law enforcement, a sense of opposition will remain. Honestly, despite the creepy 1984 feelings that even I get from the thought of this technology, I’m in favor of such forms of surveillance so long as the intellectual and constitutional rigor are put forth to define scenarios in which abuse is likely to occur and systems to provide oversight and enforcement of their use and implementation.
However, before I am truly comfortable with this, the narrative between citizens and law enforcement needs to be rewritten. The financial incentive to imprison, and privatization of prisons will need to be eliminated, and the relationship between cops and civilians, criminal and innocent alike, will need to be healed with trust and the necessary checks and balances. Without these actions, the prologue of our present conversations will foreshadow the worst for the world that is careless with this future.
Digital Surveillance is Inevitable
And it is the future. In the end, putting this technology in place is inevitable. The methods would not only become more effective and less expensive, but it will also naturally find its way to be integrated into every tool and device used in both the law enforcement and civilian sectors. That’s why I feel we can’t forestall the conversation that should be had right now, especially not before the systems become so complex and powerful that we won’t know exactly where to begin the dialogue.
This type of enforcement does not need to be all or nothing. Rather it should be designed around wise concepts with compassionate intent and structured to fight against its own abuse. As I mentioned before while this is problematic, it is ultimately a matter of saving lives. Or at least it should be. The danger comes when it doesn’t become about that. When it *does* become about power, or about manipulation. The best way to avoid this is to begin by putting all cards on the table and earnestly having the discussion. This way, corrupt and manipulative use of publicly tracked facial records are treated with earnest and deliberate care and it remains for the good of the citizenry.
What I intentionally did not mention throughout this post is the question of whether or not this is Constitutional. If you are creating a corpus of information that effectively tracks the activity of citizens, that makes it easy and extremely effective to track the history of an average citizen, isn’t this, in fact, unreasonable surveillance? Couldn’t you argue that every citizen is being actively and even aggressively tailed by digital police? Any benign series of records could be brought up to weave a suspicious narrative. It’s as good as having a warrant with your name on it just waiting for a signature. This discussion needs to be had against the intent of our Bill of Rights. At no point was the Constitution drafted with the expectation of omniscient and omnipresent sentinels.
Finally, a lot of this conversation is actually moot. The expense and sophistication of the implementations I have been describing and fascinating about simply don’t exist. There simply aren’t that many cameras, that much bandwidth, or that much data. It is simply precautionary for the sake of creating a complete thought experiment. Much like magical forensics used by TV cops, the type that can enhance blurry images and accurately complete a DNA test within a couple of hours, most of this is fantasy. However, eventually, it won’t be. The rate of technological advancements is exponential, not linear. All the more reason to have a safe and sane conversation in the present.
What do you think? Should digital facial recognition be banned from municipal law enforcement? Or is it a safe and useful tool in the hands of investigators and police? Please let’s begin the conversation.
Art and technology have been at the forefront of my life for several years. Over the past decade especially, I’ve held a career position in interactive media, have been a performer integrating both digital tools and performance art into my shows, and even in my casual consumption have gravitated toward rich media. I’m also presently involved in designing and developing some immersive ambiance and digital signage projects, which I’m really enjoying. It’s no wonder then that I would find a particular interest in some of the interactive exhibits at our local Cameron Art Museum on Community Day. A series of installations were gathered together in the museum called the TeamLab, a rich experience targeted toward children. There my family and I had the opportunity to enjoy what can happen when the creative skills behind gaming and cinema are expressed as the disciplines of art and arrangement.
What is Interactive Art?
Interactive media simply responds to a participant in real time. Art itself has a more complicated definition, but suffice to say that it is curated expression. The climbing sculptures you entered in the children’s museum on that field trip? That was an interactive art installation. It interacted in a very simple way: by supporting your weight. However, if well designed, it trained you on how it expected to be interacted with and even did it in such a way that the experience was exciting. You would actually be led into the art by the art itself. It would carry on a sort of conversation handed down from the artist.
This trick of making something intuitive yet interesting is a difficult one to strike just right. Too intuitive and it’s simply boring. Too interesting and it’s overwhelming to the point that you have no idea what to do with it. You also want to have a sense that as you are interacting with or consuming the work of art that you are “getting someplace” with it. The art should in some way communicate with the viewer throughout the experience when strongly designed. This back and forth helps facilitate a growth pattern and turns the single exhibit into a multi-dimensional piece of art, each moment being its own unique piece. Another powerful aspect of interactive media is that it can tell a complete story, all while placing the viewer right in the middle of the narrative. When pulled off it elevates the receiver of the experience from a participant to a hero, someone meaningfully tied into the active growth and life of the installation.
Designing Interactive Art
The first point we address to make a piece “intuitively interesting” is to encourage engagement. Is there a compelling call to action for the piece? Does it whisper “touch me” to idle hands, or beg the question “how does this work” for the curious eye to explore? Regarding design, there are some tricks revolving around expectations that can be played to draw the viewer into the piece. These are similar to some of the tricks related to meme virality discussed in the book Contagious.
Expectation works around the premise some interactions spell themselves out. For instance, an unmarked button on a large empty panel screams to be pushed. A dimly illuminated switch on the wall of a dark room suggests that if flicked something more will be revealed. Both of these are intuitive because we know they are supposed to do something. Both of them are interesting because what follows is somewhat secret. Nature abhors a vacuum, and so does intellect. Once we humans are given a step 1 and a step 2, it is hard to be satisfied if step 3 remains unknown.
An exhibit my family interacted with at the Cameron Art Museum allowed us to color in illustrations of sea creatures which were then scanned into the exhibit and mapped onto a model that shared the behaviors of that creature. You could color and draw in a sea turtle any way you cared to, then watch it come to life in a room-sized animated aquarium. The animals would even swim and dart away as you approached them. Nothing says “play with me” to a child like a white sheet of paper and a box of crayons. This simple starting point fully engages the art participant by letting them first be their own full-fledged artist. Then it digitizes their creation to interact with those of other children in a virtual fish tank. Being fully invested in this digital experience, which carries over from a physical one, you then get another layer of engagement as you can now chance your new pet around its watery home.
Once you’ve encouraged some level of engagement with the art piece, it’s kind to give rewards or feedback for completing a behavior. In the examples above, you might expect the button to activate some sort of mechanism or the switch to light up some display where a beautiful figure is kept. In either case, what comes is a sense of satisfaction by receiving something pleasing after the previous interaction. You want to balance feedback after each engagement, it could jarring to have only one intense form of feedback surrounded many weaker ones, or to underplay a certain behavior by reinforcing it with a too underwhelming announcement of itself. Not that you want all of them to be identical; some level of variance keeps things interesting. Regardless, the point of feedback should be to make the user more and more comfortable with how they are interacting with the piece.
In a second exhibit at the museum, ancient world inspired glyphs were projected floating onto a wall in a magically lit room. Touching the glyph caused it to explode into creatures, volcanoes, tall trees, and forest fires. The animals could be pet or could be frightened, and the fires could be stamped away. The feedback was so satisfying because it was immediate and also so explosive. The exhibit was designed to harken onto a time when the mystical experience was at the edge of every horizon and man still saw the old gods in every stone and cloud. It accomplished this by letting the viewer act as a bridge between the abstract symbols (the glyphs) and their manifested critters and natural forces, essentially allowing us to hatch open cosmic eggs. Give powerful and satisfying feedback to lead the audience through your interactive art experience.
One of the more beautiful aspects of well designed interactive art is that it grants the participant significance by placing them at the focal point of a living story. Good art very often draws the viewer in, agitating the senses just enough to stir up questions or memories or ideas. Giving them the opportunity to interact with the piece deepens this experience by making them partly responsible for “creating” the piece. When a viewer engages with art in a way that unfolds it into a richer state, they are now the artist.
Among the most powerful decisions that an artist can make with an interactive piece is giving the participant the ability to make a significant change or for it to leave a meaningful and lasting effect. When computer memory can store terabytes of historical data different interactions as with digital installations, this can be very easy. With more physical exhibits, however, materials and mechanizations that “remember” activities are useful. Sand that captures footprints, paper that can be written upon, etc.
Both of the exhibits I mentioned above handed huge amounts of significance to their audiences. The aquarium installation allowed you to submit a lasting, original creature to the collective aquarium, effectively hanging your own living portrait in the art gallery. The ancient glyphs gave you the ability to feel like you wielded the power of archaic gods with a touch of your hand, essentially creating the world. These simple but potent artistic devices draw the viewer deeply into the story that is embedded in the exhibit. Significance comes from feeling that you matter. The installations in their own way listen to their audience and speak back. There is a conversation going on. Not a lecture, as is common with a lot of high art and galleries. If you as an interactive artist can allow your art to share discourse instead of a dissertation, then you’ve managed to do something special indeed.
“Interactive” or Not, It’s All Art
There was a third exhibit in the TeamLab. It was not interactive in the sense that I mentioned above, but it was very beautiful. It depicted moving digital images in the style of East Asian ink prints. As you watch the hypnotic and slowly moving panels of video screens lined up like portraits in a gallery, they slowly begin to chip away, revealing 3D wireframes of each figure and structure, slowly being weathered away then slowly and subtly healing back.
This amazing piece did nothing more than pull back the curtain, so to speak, to show the “unfinished” skeleton behind the artwork. In a sort of post-modern, fourth wall breaking gambit, it introduced the viewer into the creative process by feigning destruction. There was nothing to touch, no feedback loops, not single user significance, simply a video loop on an array of screens. Even without implementing the techniques above, it was amazing to experience. This is a reminder that art, including interactive art, comes through a wide variety of techniques. No one series of steps or formulae can sufficiently capture all the possible dimensions of meaningful creativity, so never feel necessarily constrained into a list of checkboxes.
Art is beautiful and digital technology is exciting. The combination of the two opens up myriad channels for creativity and expansive experience. I hope that in reading this you are compelled to create digital interactive artwork and share it with the world. If not, I pray that you take the time to view and enjoy such an exhibit. The amount of immersion and perception altering possibilities may even inspire the muse in you to some other work, interactive or otherwise. Until either of those happen, look for beauty everywhere and take the time to create something interesting when you get the opportunity. I look forward to participating together with you in your interactive art and hope this post has been engaging, informative, and meaningful to you.
I suppose nothing exists a priori. As romantic as it would be to say I was destined to write, or writing chose me, both are a bit far-fetched. My name Devon means both “poet” and “word-bringer,” but it’s really by an incident that I decided to write. I grew up a bit of a bookworm and read at a slightly advanced level. So it makes sense I had many opportunities to be inspired by some work to do as authors do, but it took one specific work. It began while I was reading a classic book as a young child one afternoon. “Ah, distinctly I remember.”
It was a children’s collection of the works of Edgar Allen Poe. I loved the short stories, and have been writing my own in kind sporadically over my life. But it wasn’t Mask of the Red Death or Cask of Amontillado that lit a fire in me. It was the definitive popular poem The Raven. After reading it once I knew I wanted to memorize it. Then an intoxicating thought hit me. Could I write narrative poems that other people wanted to memorize? I wanted to write stories and verse others yearned to come out of their mouths. I wanted to capture scenes and feelings in still ink that lay dormant in wait for an unsuspecting reader to become their new host.
The Raven – Anatomy of a narrative verse
Part of me feels so very very cliche admitting such a popular poem encouraged me to write. Another part of me gives fewer damns than a crippled beaver. To me back then, and even now, The Raven is like a meal that’s easy to chew, tough to digest, and hard to pass. There’s something about writing in clean, structured verse that feels almost holy. The body of a compelling and cohesive narrative brings me a satisfied joy every time. Meanwhile, there’s a melancholy in the accessible elements of fear, loss, frustration, and despair that sit so neatly and understandably in the words, the work itself could almost be a human being.
In the end, this is what I want to produce through my own talents and skill. I want to write the type of work I would consume. Honestly, I’m not there yet, which saddens me as much as it emboldens me. It’s been my ambition lately to be at least a decent writer, so I’ve been taking workshops in writing so I can improve. My hope, I guess my dream, is to write something that survives me. That persists simply because after my tongue has grown fat then shriveled in my corpse’s jaw, someone else sees it fit to read and repeat my words. That’s not an easy thing to accomplish, so I won’t get my hopes up, but I won’t put my dreams down either. Never, nevermore.