"And reaching up my hand to try, I screamed to feel it touch the sky."

Check out this beautiful kinetic typography piece by Heebok Lee:

It’s based on an excerpt of the poem “Renascence” by Edna St. Vincent Millay.

renascence
noun
1. the revival of something that has been dormant.
2. another term for ‘renaissance.’
(Oxford English Dictionary)

Millay, who wrote the poem when she was only 20 years old, originally called it “Renaissance.” It’s interesting that the two words are so close in meaning and are pronounced almost the same way, but they’re not considered alternate spellings of the same word.

Edna St. Vincent Millay
Edna on a terrace.

Click below to read the poem in its entirety. I highly recommend reading the whole thing.
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What can gardens teach us about digitality?

The Washington Post has an intriguing piece about a book dealing with gardens (of all things) and digitality. The author, Robert Harrison, argues that gardens immerse us in place and time, and that digital devices do not. The article jumps all over the place, talking about mobile communication, cultural anthropology, and evolution, but it makes several important points.

To start, attending to digital devices is said to preclude being present:

“You know you have crossed the river into Cyberland when the guy coming your way has his head buried in the hand-held screen. He will knock into you unless you get out of his way, and don’t expect an apology. It’s as if you aren’t there. Maybe you’re not.”

I’m very interested in language like this, because it’s a metaphor in the process of becoming a literalism. Today, saying that you’re not there because you’re looking at a device is metaphorical, but I think that the meaning of ‘being there’ is going to change to mean where you are engaged, no matter where its geographical location is in relation to you. “I’ll be right there!” he said as he plugged his brain into the internet. Moments later he was standing in the garden…

The article quotes a study that claims that the average adult spends 8.5 hours a day visually engaged with a screen. 24-hour days, split up by 8.5 hours of screen and 8 hours of sleep—the Screen Age really does deserve its own delineation. It’s a significant and unique period in human history.

And just like sleep, perhaps disturbingly so, people looking at screens can resemble dead people (or, more accurately, un-dead people):

…We have become digital zombies.

But I think the resemblance is entirely superficial. Sure, if you only go by appearances, an army of screen-starers is a frightening sight to imagine. But scratch the surface and you realize that screen-staring is a far cry from zombism. The social spaces we are constructing while we stare, the vast data stores we are integrating—these activities remind me of life. Teeming life. Our bodies may be sedentary, our eyes fixed on a single glowing rectangle, but what is going on is indisputably amazing. On the microscopic level there are billions of electrical fluctuations per moment, both in our brains and our machines, and they are actively correlating and adapting to each other. Patterns of thought are encoded in a vast network of micro-actions and reactions that span the planet. And what is it like for you when you stare at a computer or phone screen? You juggle complex, abstract symbolic information at speeds never before achieved by human brains, and you’re also inputting—emitting—hundreds of symbols with the precise motor skills of your fingers. You are recognizing pictures and signs, searching for things, finding them, figuring stuff out, adjusting your self image, and nurturing your dreams. There is no loss of dignity or life in this. But I admit that we all look like zombies while we do it, and I suppose that is pretty weird.

The article goes on to quote author Katherine Hayles, who says she thinks humans are in a state of symbiosis with their computers:

“If every computer were to crash tomorrow, it would be catastrophic,” she says. “Millions or billions of people would die. That’s the condition of being a symbiont.”

Let that sink in. At any moment a catastrophic event could fry our entire digital infrastructure in one fell swoop. Our civilization teeters on a house of cards as high as Mount Everest! To me this is the only reason the Screen Age should be frightening, but it’s very frightening indeed.

Turning now to sensation, Hayles mentions that touch and smell are suppressed by bipedalism:

“You could say when humans started to walk upright, we lost touch with the natural world. We lost an olfactory sense of the world, but obviously bipedalism paid big dividends.”

Note that bipedalism is associated with a loss of tactility, but it has also been correlated with enabling more complex manual dexterity. Maybe there is a general principle here that ambient tactile awareness is inversely correlated to prehension.

After a brief ensuing discussion of dualism and the advent of location-based services, we’re back to the gardens:

The difficulty, Harrison argues, is that we are losing something profoundly human, the capacity to connect deeply to our environments… “For the gardens to become fully visible in space, they require a temporal horizon that the age makes less and less room for.”

I like the point about a gardens’ time horizon. But it’s used to complain about the discomfort of our rushed lifestyle, which I would argue is separable from communication technology. The heads-buried-in-screens thing doesn’t really affect whether we have time for gardens.

An interesting footnote offered by Harrison is that the Czech playwright Karel Capek, who invented the word ‘robot,’ was a gardener.

Finally, this is the photo that accompanies the article:
PH2009121403611
…captioned, “Fingers on the political pulse.” The article is about looking and being present, but the picture is about hands, heatbeat, and hapticity.

(via Althouse)

A touch saves a life

The Moth is a stand-up storytelling podcast I’ve been enjoying lately. An especially moving story was told by Mike Destefano. When he had reached the rock bottom of his life, having lost his wife, his father, and his will to live, a mentor literally reaches out to him, touches him, and changes everything:

The flame that I had as a kid, all of it, gone. Because now everyone died. All at that one moment, you know? And I made arrangements to fly home the next day, and I got on the plane, and when I got on the plane I decided that I was going to end my life. I’m pretty much done. And I wasn’t telling anyone, it wasn’t a threat, it was a total fucking decision that I’ve pretty much had enough of this. There is no more, nothing else to live for, and I’m done. So I got on the plane, and I was so excited because I’m like, I’m really going to fucking die, this is so great! I was thrilled and at peace. And I couldn’t wait until the funeral was over, because that’s when I’m going to do it. I’m not going to jump off a building or in front of a car. You people ever heard of overdosing on drugs? …I get up and go to the back of the plane to go to the bathroom and… the monk that I had met was sitting in the back row… And he put his hands out like he did before, again… and it worked for me… it just, it worked. And I got home, and I quit my job and I said, you know what? I want to be a fucking comedian.

Listen to the whole thing.

[audio:moth-podcast-89-mike-destefano.mp3]

Download (mp3, 17 MB)

Touch the paintings in the Met

Hoping to boost attendance and broaden its base of supporters, the Metropolitan Museum of Art launched a new initiative this week that allows patrons, for the first time ever, to prod and scratch at the classic paintings in its revered collection.

“You can’t grasp the brilliance of a great painting just by looking at it… To truly appreciate fine art, you need to be able to run your fingers over its surface and explore its range of textures.”

The new policy has been so popular that on Monday the Met began extending tactile privileges beyond its paintings. Patrons are now invited to climb inside ancient Egyptian sarcophagi, whether to take a souvenir photo or just carve a message into a 2,500-year-old sacred coffin.

Some, however, remained unimpressed.

“I touched a crapload of Jasper Johns’ paintings,” said Mark Bennet, 67. “I just don’t get why they’re supposed to be so special. They feel like any regular old painting.”

Stop crying and cursing! It’s an Onion article.

"The technical name was Perimeter, but some called it Mertvaya Ruka, Dead Hand."

It was built 25 years ago and remained a closely guarded secret. With the demise of the USSR, word of the system did leak out, but few people seemed to notice…. The system may no longer be a central element of Russian strategy—US-based Russian arms expert Pavel Podvig calls it now “just another cog in the machine”—but Dead Hand is still armed.

Somewhat tangential, I know, but I just couldn’t resist posting the image accompanying the article:

mf_deadhand_f

Printed strain sensors = "sense of touch"

In future, the robot could find its own way. A sensor will endow it with a sense of touch and help it to detect its undersea environment autonomously.

“One component in this tactile capability is a strain gauge,” says Marcus Maiwald…“If the robot encounters an obstacle,” he explains, “the strain gauge is distorted and the electrical resistance changes. The special feature of our strain gauge is that it is not glued but printed on – which means we can apply the sensor to curved surfaces of the robot.”

The sensor system on this robot is not all that complex; strain gauges are literally a dime a dozen (or less). But the configuration of the sensors reminds us of an animal body, and that’s what intrigues us. Since the strain sensors are printed along the surface of the robot in a continuous way (rather than being attached at some specific point), we’re reminded of how touch receptors are embedded throughout the skin, bringing to mind the phrase “sense of touch.” The Roomba has a mechanical sensor that is technically similar to the ones in this new robot, but we don’t talk about the Roomba having a sense of touch because the sensor is in a discrete place. To have a sense of touch you need to be able to sense contact (almost) anywhere on the surface of the body.