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Monday, December 1, 2008

Materializing Digital Phenomenon
Aylor Brown

Abstract: The impulse to declare our existence is our biological imperative, a remnant from a time in our history when proving our worth was a key to survival. In an age of ubiquitous computing this desire can be easily realized, as confirmed by the proliferation of online blogs and personal websites. Unlike the architecture and literature of our ancestors, our declarations are of an intangible medium. By digitally demarcating our lives we create a perfect, stable memory of our physical experiences while in the process generating a complex relationship with the seemingly impermanent nature of digital media and digital experiences.
This essay analyzes projects by computer programmers, academics, and artists that offer insights into this new phenomenon. Of particular interest are projects that physically archive the immaterial, digitally archive the material, and the psychological and personal implications of both. I don't propose solutions but rather raise questions concerning a new type of interpersonal relationship with our computers.

In December 2005, the U.S. government sent a Texas man to federal state prison to serve out a 57-month sentence for child pornography possession. The case was complicated by the fact that the man, Javier Perez, suffered from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder 1. Perez’s compulsive tendencies were marked with an obsessive downloading and hoarding of the Internet. During his trial, Perez told the court he was “trying to make a ‘backup’ of all online content – that is, the manic and absurd ambition to duplicate the entire World Wide Web.”2 Perez programmed his computer to copy all the Internet activity it could locate onto CDRs. He would start his day by loading a CD into his computer and end it by storing that CD in a plastic tub. Three years later Perez had amassed tens of thousands of digital files that he never actually went through.

The Perez case is extreme but it raises several interesting questions, namely, what it is in our nature that causes the desire to make our digital experiences tangible and infinite.

In this essay, I will explore this fascination with digital immortality through analysis of art, science, and theory. The first part compares two of my own projects within the sphere of contemporary art and programming projects that materialize digital information. The second part describes research projects that aim to digitize our physical experiences, specifically Gordon Bells’s MyLifeBits at Microsoft Research. The final part analyzes this new found digital inability to forget by citing academic critiques on the ramifications of an absolute memory.


TextEdit Textiles 3 is a collaborative project by Arend deGruyter Helfer and myself. DeGruyter-Helfer used TextEdit, the default Macintosh text editor, to create digital pattern drawings, some encoded with personal wishes, and I used Photoshop and a computer-assisted Jacquard loom to translate these drawings into cloth. The result is both a physical archive of the intangible and a dialogue between two friends on the materialization of desires. As the project exists as a collection of five screenshots and a five cuts of cloth, (Appendix 1) there is a noticeable tension between the copy and the original. The weavings are a direct rendering of the pattern – the Jacquard loom essentially weaves pixels so weaving a digital-based pattern is straightforward. Despite the directness the weavings lack the magic that occurs when viewing the on-screen pattern.

The Internet Gives the Possibility of Being Alone with Other People 4 is a record of my Internet community activity during a recent summer vacation. (Appendix 2) Screenshots of blog posts, Flickr 5 updates, and Delicious 6 links are arranged in a calendar format and bound with removable butterfly screws. Like TextEdit Textiles, The Internet Gives the Possibility… is a loaded gesture of materializing digital information. A problem arises as the pages are printed on newsprint – an unarchival paper. Essentially the book becomes an attempt to hold on to something you can’t physically hold on to. This gesture is futile and almost pathetic but not singular in the least. Select, Arrange (Appendix 3) is a web application that allows users to collect online content, store it in a database, and export as a printable PDF book project. With concept and design by Swiss designer Phillipe Egger, Select, Arrange is a “two year research about the relation between [ …] media print and the web (digital)” 7 as well as a “tool to enable internauts to print high quality PDF's of their notes, researches, city guides, fanzines, websites or portfolios.” 8 Select, Arrange is an interesting application as it visualizes our online time and has the possibility of completely standardizing the output. A user could divide their online activities – social, research, recreation- and create a book of each one, each with the same layout. Bringing our online activities to life, or out of the computer, validates them as not just wasted time, but a valid social and research tool. This can be likened to preparation for writing a paper – a lot of time is spent in a library reading and taking notes with the end result the essay that can indicate how much or little effort was done.

Two other noteworthy projects are Gelsomina (Appendix 4) and News Knitter (Appendix 5). Gelsomina is a project by Berlin University of the Art’s students Magdalena Kohler and Hanna Weisener. Kohler and Wesiener hacked a knitting machine and using Processing, programmed the machine to knit a pattern based on the modulation of a user’s voice. The modulation, or the strength of the voice, is analyzed in Processing and turned into binary code, the code then translated into a knitting pattern. The knitting machine then knits a sweater, scarf, or vest based on that pattern.

News Knitter is a data visualization project by Mahir M. Yavuz and Ebru Kurback, students at the Kunstuniversit├Ąt Linz. RSS feeds 9 are used as a basis for a textile design when Yavus and Kurback analyze, filter, and convert the day’s news coverage into a unique visual pattern for a knitted sweater. 10 The collaborators marry the physical and the digital as they apply dynamic data to a medium that is normally fixed.

These projects are all efforts to either translate our digital experiences into physical experiences or to amalgamate the two. In a world increasingly managed by computers, our digital experiences are becoming as concrete as our analog ones. After all, the people on the other side of the screen in our e-mails and message boards are human, not purely 0s and 1s. Our relationships with them can be as long lasting as the relationships we forge in our analog lives, so separating the two realms becomes an outdated reaction to technology. These projects take that stance and offer solutions with the symbiosis of digital and material. The difference between these projects and the following are sentiment- understanding the changes but still wanting to hold on to the material.


For the past nine years a team at Microsoft Research has begun a mission to digitally chronicle every aspect of a person’s life. The project is called MyLifeBits and was launched by Gordon Bell in 2002 with the aim of digitally archiving his interactions with the world. MyLifeBits is separated into two parts – an experiment in lifetime storage and software research. The digital store or “surrogate brain” began with an assistant scanning all of Bell’s documents from his personal life and 47-year history as a computer scientist. After that, he went totally digital – every e-mail he sends, ever web page he views, every word document he opens is digitally stowed away. His conversations are recorded with a recorder he wears at all times and his activities are photographed with the Microsoft Sensecam – a key component of the software aspect of MyLifeBits. Every possible aspect of his life is archived, all automatically with the least amount of effort. Bell says, "It gives you kind of a feeling of cleanliness. I can offload my memory. I feel much freer about remembering something now. I've got this machine, this slave, that does it.” 11

Vannevar Bush first proposed the notion of a machine-extended memory in his 1945 essay “As We May Think.” Bush writes, “Presumably man’s spirit should be elevated if he can better review his shady past and analyze more completely and objectively his present problems. He has built a civilization so complex that he needs to mechanize his records more fully if he is to push his experiment to its logical conclusion and not merely become bogged down part way there by overtaxing his limited memory.” 12 Bell and the Microsoft team take this idea and bring it to modern society by developing software to make it as effortless as possible for the average person to spend less time trying to remember the small, seemingly insignificant details of the everyday and presumably focus on the bigger picture. The SenseCam was developed to aid in alleviating patients with memory loss (Appendix 6) but has immediate applications in life recording. The SenseCam is a wearable camera that is “designed to take photographs passively, without user intervention, while it is being worn.” 13 It can be programmed to take photographs on a timer or according to the levels of light or audio in a room.

There are similar life-logging projects at both Yale and Sony. Time Machine Computing is a project by Sony’s Jun Rekimoto. Rekimoto’s 1999 project is an intuitive approach to archiving as he sees digital activity as a trail instead of stack of folders. Rekimoto explains with “a user of TimeScape can spatially arrange information on the desktop. Any desktop item can be removed at any time, and the system supports time travel to the past or the future of the desktop. The combination of spatial information arrangement and chronological navigation allows the user to organize and archive electric information without being bothered by document folders or file classification problems.” 14

Lifestreams is a 1994 project at Yale developed by Eric Freeman. A lifestream is a “time-ordered stream of documents that functions as a diary of your electronic life; every document you create and every document other people send you is stored in your lifestream.” 15 Both Lifestreams and Time Machine Computing archive digital experiences in trails that can be played back. They are compelling approaches that see the time we spend on our computers as valuable experiences that should be able to be recalled like a home movie.

Another project dealing with recall is Martine Sym’s Everything I’ve Ever Wanted To Know. 16 Syms alphabetized two years of Google search queries in a drop-down menu on (Appendix 7) The piece is a self-portrait, a narrative, an archive of what she was interested in. Syms thinks of Everything I’ve Ever Wanted to Know as a writing piece and a comment on using the Internet efficiently as a resource instead of limiting it to e-mail and directions. She says, “I'm interested in constraints, and using a specific vernacular, or vocabulary to work through concepts.” 17 Google provides interesting constraints as the most efficient way to find an answer is to pare down your question to a few, significant words. We train ourselves that typing “breaking lease + Chicago” is a direct translation of “Are there laws in Chicago against breaking your lease?”
This concept goes back to Gordon Bell’s MyLifeBits. Bell has this massive amount of information that he goes through when he wants to recall a memory. If he wants to remember an event or e-mail he searches through his database with keywords. He treats his memory as binary – an unerring file of 0s and 1s – instead of pliable, imaginative process. So as the rest of us go through maddeningly elusive process of remembering the type of cake we had at our last
birthday, Gordon Bells goes to his PC and types in “2007 + birthday + cake.” What are the implications of a new perfect memory and what happens to the old way of remembering?


German computer scientist Frank Knack believes that we cheapen our memories when they’re only a click away. He is wary of the MyLifeBits Project as forgetting is “how we make sense of life, how we interpret things and without the difficult act of pulling something from the crannies of the mind, we become like the hapless high-school student who gets 2 million hits for a search on ‘World War II’ and has no way of prioritizing them.” 18 Knack argues that while life-logging projects are interesting because they force us to reflect on what exactly makes us human, they might be setting a standard that will do society more harm, than good. 19

Jorge Luis Borges touches on this point in his 1942 “Funes the Memorius.” “Funes” tells the story of a boy who, after a horse riding accident, loses the ability to forget. He perceives everything in an almost unbearable richness and detail, finding it hard to even sleep as “to sleep is to turn one’s mind from the world; Funes, lying on his back could imagine every crevice and every molding in the sharply defined houses surrounding him.” 20 With “Funes”, Borges explores the need for generalities and abstractions in everyday and scientific thought. We cannot progress academically and scientifically by being bogged down with too much information and trivial details. An infallible memory means we’ve taken away our human imperfections, these imperfections responsible for characteristics like knowledge and wisdom. Viktor Mayer-Shoenberger puts it simply with “it is hard to see how such an unforgetting world could offer us the open society we are used to today.” 21

These two groups of projects, while emotionally different, have the same concern – how do we live progress in a world of ubiquitous computing without losing our human nature. The first group of projects remains sentimental and holds on to the material while the second group abandons all material in favor of a totally digital existence. The answer must lie in the gray area between absolute analog and absolute digital.

1 American Heritage Dictionary – “A psychiatric disorder characterized by the persistent intrusion of repetitive, unwanted thoughts which may be accompanied by compulsive actions, such as hand washing or hoarding.”
2 Smith, Jordan. “Pornbusters!” The Austin Chronicle. 17 August 2007. 7 May 2008.
3 January – May 2008
4 August 2008
5, an online image hosting and online community platform
6, a social book marking website
7 Select, Arrange. 2008. Fageta. 27 November 2008
8 About. 2007. Select, Arrange. 27 November 2008
9 RSS or Rich Site Summary is a format for delivering regularly changing web content
10 News Knitter. 24 September 2008. Ebru Kurbak & Mahir Mustafa Yavuz. 10 November 2008
11 Thompson, Clive. “A Head for Detail.” Fast Company. No. 110 (Nov 2006). 27 November 2008
12 Bush, Vannevar. “As We May Think.” The Atlantic Monthly. 1945 July. 27 November 2008
13 “Introduction to SenseCam.” Microsoft Research. 2007. 27 November 2008
14 Rekimoto, Jun. “TimeScape: A Time Machine for the Desktop Environment.” Time-Machine Computing 1999. 27 November 2008 15Freeman, Eric. “Life streams Project Home Page.” Yale University. 27 November 2008
16 2005 - 2007
17 Syms, Martine. “Gchat interview with Aylor Brown.” 8 October 2008.
18 Thompson, Clive. “A Head for Detail.” Fast Company. No. 110 (Nov 2006). 27 November 2008
19 Nack, Frank. “You Must Remember This.” IEEE Multimedia, 2005, Vol 12, No. 1, pp. 4 - 7.
20 Borges, Jorge Luis. “Funes the Memorius.” Labyrinths. New York: New Directions Publishing, 1964.
21 Mayer-Schoenberger, Viktor. “The Art of Forgetting in the Age of Ubiquitous Computing.” April 2007. 27 November 2008

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