Delusions of immateriality
by Nathalie Jeremijenko
Biographies:
Adriaan Beukers
Ole Bouman
Steward Butterfield
Ben Cerveny
Elisabeth Diller
Michael Douglas
Maya Draisin
Brian Eno
Marti Guixe
Ivo Janssen
Nathalie Jeremijenko
Lee Eng Lock
Winy Maas
Malcolm McCullough
Irene McWilliam
Sugata Mitra
Andre Oorebeek
Chris Pacione
Garry van Patter
Fiona Raby
Hani Rashid
Rick Robinson
Alexander Rose
Tiffany Shlain
Bruce Sterling
Lisa Strausfeld
John Thackara
Tjebbe van Tijen
Michael Waisvisz
I'm very pleased to be here. And I've prepared a little power point presentation to show you how pleased I am, about ideas of immateriality and information technologies – NOT.

Here's a quick outline. I've got about 20 minutes in which to talk about heavy and hard information and show you a few examples of such things. This will be a sort of background for a rant against lightness, and some thoughts about what gets to count as information.

I'm going to start off with a little project called "The Live Wire". It's an old one, but it's useful to start off with for this conference. I built this little device when I was at Xerox Park, years ago when I realised cyberspace was being introduced into the public imagination as this wholly different type of space of instantaneous communication, and of immateriality.

In this sort of delusion of immateriality, there is this hallucination that the computer – with its nine-month product lifecycle and toxic contents and by-products – was somehow the product of a clean, immaterial industry. This is crap.

Anyway, this Live Wire project started to explore what information technologies would look like, if we thought of them as physical. So, the Live Wire is just that: a wire that dangles down from the ceiling. It plugs into the local area network, and it is a 3-D real-time, Internet traffic indicator. When there's traffic, it wiggles. When there's a lot of traffic, it wiggles a lot, and when there's not much, it doesn't wiggle very much.

Of course, this wire could be yet another screen on your computer, part of the monogamous relationship between you and your computer screen, but it's not. It's in the shared social space. It's in the periphery. It could be in that scientised genre of precision and accuracy, in a gratuitous 3-D graph; but it's just a wire that hangs down from the ceiling and as such it became incredibly popular.

I think the best testimony to this strategy, this tangible strategy of representing information, was that this is the only piece I've done that system administrators really liked. That's because they didn't have people banging on their doors anymore, telling them what's wrong with the network. It was rendered obvious in a shared social space, where everyone could access it.

So here's another simple project. And I'll just tell you that it ties in with one of my theories, which is: that people do smart things with dumb objects, and dumb things with smart objects. This is one of my dumb objects: it's the "Voicebox", a 3-D sound environment. It's a 3-D digital sound icon for real space, as opposed to virtual space.

I built these while I was working on an "Acoustitron" project, which is a 3-D sound environment that you use in combination with virtual reality environments. It's this processor-heavy thing you do to make sound appear like it's coming from over there, or over there. But most of you who've experienced virtual reality space understand that it's a desert. If you come across another person, they're usually a stick figure, or just a hand; and they're usually pointing a gun at you. It's not a place of richly nuanced, witty, social interaction.

Anyway, Voiceboxes were a little reaction against that. To see what would it look like to design 3-D sound that supported a more interesting type of interaction. They are little two-inch-square boxes, and when you pick them up, they play. When you open them up, they record 30 seconds of digital sound. And when you have a hundred of them in a room, as there were at Siggraph, in 1995, it's actually pretty interesting to see what people do with them. I mean a lot of people do stupid things, "hello" and so on. But a lot of them had things like, "Put me down!" So you pick up the box, and it says, "Put me down". Or people literally threw their voices, or left comments all over the gallery space on the other pieces. And the result was, not only the illusion of 3-D sound, but actual commentary and even, occasionally, wit.

Next, I'd like to show you another information-rendering device. This is Trigger, the Loma Prieta pony. Trigger is an information display device too. He's a kiddie ride, except he's been fucked with a bit. His motor, when you put 25 cents in, now follows the ground motion acceleration of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. So you literally ride the quake. The New York Stock Exchange has been considering putting in one for a while, a bear version. Put 25 cents in and you can ride the 1987 market crash!

Back to Trigger, this is actually the only gender-specific technology I managed to build. You'll notice a rather uncomfortable little black horn right at the front of the saddle. When riding on this violent thing, it makes it unusually uncomfortable for some genders, but not others. The thing at stake here is again rendering factual information – in this case, information from the US Geographical Society website. It's the same data, but rendered as a social experience, not as a fact to be consumed.

On the same theme of breaking away from passive consumption of information models is this project for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, God-awful place! They had a design competition, and I was working for Xerox at the time and they wanted to demonstrate their colour printing technologies. This is a reconfigurable parking lot that Xerox wanted to build. When you drove your car in, an industrial meter scanned the colour of your car and issued you a ticket telling you where to park. This afforded the unique capacity of being able to arrange the cars according to colour, and in fact, in all sorts of interesting and lovely patterns. This transforms the banal act of parking into a public spectacle. This is a shared information display.

Now lets go back to places, because digital memory and information technologies are usually used to virtualise space, and a couple of projects I've done explore how to reinforce the structure of space. This is a little piece, a storefront, for Art and Architecture in New York, and its called "Real Time". I want to show this piece specifically in contrast to the "Clock of the Long Now" that we saw earlier, because this is also about time. This piece consists of just a microphone and a speaker. "Real Time" is recording constantly, 24/7, and plays back what it hears, but it plays it back one year later. This reinforces the annual exhibition cycle of the space and explores what it looks like to have digital memory in a place. Rather than to think of it as no place.

This is the project I want to talk to you about the most. It's called "One Tree", and it uses these tangible information strategies, addressing the inevitabilities of a networked information society. What I'm interested in is not communities of shared interest, but that other less nostalgic idea of communities of shared resources. You may have no shared interest, you may not even like your neighbour, but you breathe the same air, and your real estate values are inextricably bound. It's this rendering of community that's being under-represented in the information technologies. We're building in this delusion of immateriality.

"One Tree" is actually 6,000 trees. They've been cloned from a single little bunch of undifferentiated tissue. These clones are all entirely the same. They are micro-propagated, and kept in a lab, in sterile conditions, until the springtime of next year when they will be planted throughout the San Francisco Bay Area, in pairs. They are being planted in public sites like Union Square, Golden Gate Park, the San Francisco school district, and the BART (which is what passes for a public transport system in San Francisco). Because they're biologically the same, they will render the environment and social differences to which they're exposed.

These are the plants in the lab. They've been exhibited together twice. Now here they are as plantlets in the San Francisco Center for the Arts, Yorba Buena. You can see here, the punchline of exhibiting these things together is to demonstrate that although they are genetically identical, and although they are environmentally identical, until springtime of next year, you can see that they are actually quite different. So the project is using the material evidence of these trees to contest the genetic determinism that unfortunately pervades the public imagination. In the New York Times's Science Times, they have reported the gene for alcoholism, having found the gene for violence, and – my favourite – also having found the gene for promiscuity.

So, the clones are being planted throughout the Bay Area, but there is another component of this: these electronic trees, or virtual trees, which are of course immaterial trees. They're distributed on a CD-ROM that's being published by Mute, called Mutate appropriately. You put the CD-ROM in your CD-ROM driver, and it plants a tree on your desktop, rather like this. The tree grows at the same rate as the biological trees. It's a little bit like watching grass grow.

The difference between this A-life project and other A-life projects (which model the world, and complexity, immaterially as a closed world) is that this tree is actually controlled by a little carbon dioxide meter that plugs into your local serial port. It is this that punctures the wall between the virtual and actual environment, and controls the growth rate of your virtual tree. Then you are actually building up data in the public sphere, creating an informational network of carbon dioxide measurements that effect us all, as a little thing called global warming.

Current carbon dioxide and global warming models are based on 17 points in the stratosphere, in which carbon dioxide is measured. What this project does is build an informal network of motley techno-artists and other interested people who actually have the data to re-interpret, literally on the ground, what those general circulation models mean.

As another little treat on the CD-ROM, this is to encourage you all to get one, is a little project called "Stump". It's a little virus, a little memory-resonant program that sits in your printer queue and counts the number of pages that you and your printer consume. When you've consumed a tree's worth of pulp, it prints you out a slice of tree and allows you to build up a forest of stumps that you and your printer have consumed.

Maybe the best way to frame this is to contrast it with the Champs Elysée Smart Trees project, which has been planting little bugs in the trees there. This is from Reuters – I promise I didn't misquote it: "The Chip contains an ID number which, when read by a mobile computer, gives a read out on a tree's location, age and condition." I love this, I mean have not had to check a tree's location using my mobile computer very often, but they seem to think this is a pressing need. This is clearly about the reduction of information into these three data points that are convenient for storage but not actually for interpretation, not for interpretative richness. You can see the "One Tree" project renders things with a little bit more complexity, than those three data points.

So, I've just got a minute left. I'm going to use that to show you one project, OK two projects, very quickly, from the Bureau of Inverse Technology. Some of you may know that I work for the Bureau, you know we all have to have a day job of sorts, I just want to show you a couple of their projects, because I think they're tremendously relevant for this. One of the projects that you may of heard of is the "Suicide Box", which is a motion-detection video camera in the vicinity of the Golden Gate Bridge. It watches the bridge constantly, and when there's vertical motion, it captures that to a permanent video record. Hence, a video archive of the suicides of the Golden Gate Bridge.

One thing that we do with this data is generate the despondency index, which indexes the Dow Jones Industrial average to the suicide rate of the Golden Gate Bridge, and gives you a moving average of what's going on. The Dow Jones Industrial is very literally the stamp of the health of the nation, in America that is. And this juxtaposition of the suicides, these tragic phenomena, represents the radical exclusions that we don't normally see in the factuality of the Dow Jones Industrial. This is a good example of how information pretends to be comprehensive, true, complete, factual and historical, rather than incomplete and partial and representing particular interests.

This is a still shot from the "Bit Plane", a sortie over Silicon Valley that flew through all the no-camera zones of the Silicon Valley corporate campuses. Places where information is being developed, and you can't take cameras in there – the idea being that you could go and take photos as if information were stuff. As if it was something you could take a photo of, and steal. Hence you can't take cameras. So the Bureau developed and deployed this "Bit Plane" which flew into Xerox Park, Interval Research, and across all the low-slung corporate campuses of Silicon Valley and their promise of delivering the future to us. Of course, you'll have to go onto the Bureau website to see what I found.

Now for a brief summary: this collective delusion, which sees information as immaterial, and talks about it as if it were facts, is costing us a situated understanding of how we work, how we communicate, and how we think. It is turning us into atomised passive consumers, rather than active interpreters of information, and it sucks. Thank you.