Sorting the Digital Photos of a Digital Pandemic

Like many, I struggle with digital clutter–too many photos, emails, and articles I’ll never look at again. To tame the photo clutter, I downloaded an app to sort through years worth of digital photo detritus. The app I tried is kind of like Tinder for photos. A simple swipe sends a photo to a folder or to the trash. It was useful but ultimately too buggy: it crashed frequently and can’t seem to handle videos. And, of course, the features this app has should be built into iPhoto itself.

More interesting than the app was the exercise of time traveling backwards, via my photos, though the pandemic. Concurrently with this exercise Kelly and I watched the vastly underappreciated David Cronenberg movie eXistenZ and, in my mind, this film, and my digital photos and the pandemic became one.

What struck me about the contents of my phone during the pandemic was the sudden increase in memes, indicating a lot of time spent online looking at Instagram and the website formerly known as Twitter. The early pandemic period sorted us into the Useful People, who care for the sick, build houses, grow and sell food and the Useless People who look at their phones and attend Zoom meetings. For some it was a a world of anxiety, literal blood and guts and for others the time to kick back on the couch and watch every episode of Tiger King. But this is, of course, too much of a dualistic view. Many who were stuck at home also had to deal with the reality of panic over finances and taking care of family members.

And most of us, including a lot of Useful People, ended up spending a lot of time looking at screens and this is where the paradox of all that digitality and Cronenberg’s movie align. All the digital photos I accumulated are “virtual” in the sense that they seem to occupy no physical space but this masks the reality that our digital files, in fact, very much occupy the “meatspace” of digital cloud storage, an industry that uses immense amounts of power, occupies countless technicians, programmers, HR departments, outsourced content moderators and janitors and eats up land in the from of massive warehouses, power stations, undersea cables and telecommunications stitching facilitates. The hidden physical reality of computer space is realized and satirized in eXistenZ in the virtual world of a video game that sits atop an infrastructure of typical Cronenbergian biological messiness: game controllers made from the parts of some kind of mutant salamander creature assembled in hellish Third World butcher shops.

eXistenZ also troubles the idea that we can somehow have a viewpoint outside of the virtual one we inhabit. This is one of the many ways in which eXistenZ is a much better movie than The Matrix which has an overly Manichean take on reality, and implies that we can escape into the Real (in the later Matrix sequels revealed as the 1990s underground rave city of Zion).

More fundamentally, eXistenZ also undermines our sense of who is the “I” inside of us. The characters in eXistenZ, (who are also of course real life actors in a movie) begin to question their own lines of dialog, wondering why they are conforming to the plot of the video game within the film. As Mark Fisher points out this mirrors the ways in which we find ourselves acting on the wishes of some algorithm, following the guidance of Google Maps, some fitness app or getting in a flame war on social media and thereby feeding the conflict based profit model of our Silicon Valley lords. Are we tweeting or being tweeted? as Richard Seymour might put it.

If Cronenberg’s icky body horror puts you off, know that in this movie its a bit tamer than his others and played for laughs. There’s a whole bit about a biological orifice for the game controller that’s hilarious but also speaks to the fear of infection, physicality and proximity to other people that the pandemic exacerbated. And eXistenZ‘s game controller reminds me of the way the engineers at Apple made my new iPhone shudder when I touch it, creating a tactile desire very much like the appeal of the fleshy, nipple like appendages of the bio-electronic controller in eXistenZ that the characters just can’t seem to resist fondling.

Unlike the Matrix there’s no neat way out of the mirror house postmodernity of the eXistenZ universe. Ariadne has left no thread to escape the maze. The best you can do is to map the territory. Towards that end, instead of a photo sorting app, I’ll leave you with two book recommendations: K-punk : the collected and unpublished writings of Mark Fisher  which contains the essay on eXistenZ that inspired this post (I’d recommend reading his book Capitalist Realism: is there no alternative? first), and Richard Seymour’s The Twittering Machine. If you know of a good photo sorting app leave a comment!

Of Purple Prose and Re-Enchantment

I lieu of links this week, here’s a conversation between three of my favorite writers, Richard Seymour, China Mieville, and David Bentley Hart. Topics include “dandy” prose, materialism and metaphysics, non-human intelligence, and if you stick it out to the end, a moving plea to re-enchant the world.

It’s a long conversation and technical in places, but well worth a close listening.

Thanks to Daniel Saunders for the tip.

Air Quality Citizen Science: Measuring Pollution with an AirBeam

Los Angeles Library card holders can check out an air quality monitor and participate in a crowd-sourced science project to monitor and map air quality.

I checked out a portable monitor at the Central Library, called an AirBeam, that measures two kinds of particulate pollution and feeds the results to an app on your smartphone. The AirBeam looks at two different sizes of particulate matter: PM2.5 and PM10. PM2.5, the smaller of the two, comes mostly from burning gasoline, diesel fuel and wood. PM10 (which, somewhat confusingly, includes PM2.5 particles) comes partly from fossil fuel but also consists of dust from agriculture, construction, wildfires and pollen.

The AirBeam has a loop which I attached to my belt, allowing me to take the device on my morning dog walks. The period in early August that I took measurements was unusually good for Los Angeles in August due to a mild weather. Only on one day did smoke from a distant fire up the central coast give me a reading that air quality officials would deem as “unhealthy”. It should be noted that there is actually no level of particulate matter that is “healthy” but, even without human activity, there would still be some particulate matter.

The app gives you both a graph of your readings and a map view, in this case from a walk I took down to the always congested 101 freeway. Everyone can view results via the web on this map.

You can also use the AirBeam to make stationary measurements indoors. Indoor particulate matter consists of things such as cigarette smoke and mold spores. Thankfully we seem to have good indoor air quality.

The real promise of the AirBeam and the LA Library’s lending project lies in creating a hyper-local mapping of pollution as well as creating a kind of air pollution literacy. With a lot of people wandering around with these monitors we might be able to identify pollution hot spots in need of attention. While there is more to air pollution than just particulate matter, I also feel like I have a better idea of what air quality reports mean and almost a nose for it.

In addition to the AirBeam, the LA Library also has a number of other kits you can check out to monitor mosquitos, light pollution, water quality, biodiversity, and heat island effects. They also have curriculum materials to support these kits if you’d like to make these part of a school project.

When Mushrooms Attack

With the news that Amazon is flooded with dangerous, AI generated mushroom foraging books, this seems like the perfect time for this blog to point towards the Japanese kid’s show Ultraman Taro, specifically episode 31, “Danger! The Poisonous Mushroom of Lies”.

The episode opens with a giant, ambulatory mushroom, named Mushra, destroying a Japanese city. Ultraman Taro, a sort of size-shifting superhero, defeats the monster but not without a release of spores. After the battle the main protagonist of the series, Kotaro, meets a lonely latchkey kid, Daisuke, and gives him an experimental device that allows him to communicate with plants, as one does. Daisuke uses the device to communicate with mushrooms (I know, not a plant, but stay with me here). Handed such a device, let me just say that my first impulse would also be to communicate with the mushrooms to just ask them, like, what the hell are you all up to?

Daisuke, unfortunately, gets prodded by a bunch of hoodlum teens to eat one of the mushrooms and a seriously bad trip ensues. Daisuke becomes a mushroom monster and, due to the spores, turns the whole town into mushroom zombies.

Ultraman Taro returns to combat Mushra and this time drys up the giant mushroom’s water supply with some sort of zappy laser thingy. The mushroom zombies turn back into normal townsfolk. Daisuke’s mom apologizes for prioritizing work and, this being a Japanese show, everyone enjoys a bowl of mushrooms over rice.

That paradoxical love/hate/fear relationship we have with fungi, an organism that can nourish or kill or create visions thus provides the perfect plot points for this bit of pop cultural symbiosis and, as a bonus, you get an unexpected side plot dealing with women in the workplace in 1960s Japan.

Here’s the whole episode for your viewing pleasure:

Inside the Internet Archive: A Meat World Tour

Living, as we all do, in a fog bank of texts, emails, social media updates and more it can seem as Marx put it, that “all that is solid melts into thin air.” Thus, visiting the physical headquarters of the Internet Archive, is somewhat contradictory. Yes, in fact, you can ride the #38r Geary bus to see a website. We forget that the “virtual” things in our lives exist in the real world of servers, cables and cooling systems.

The Internet Archive, founded in 1996, is a “non-profit library of millions of free books, movies, software, music, websites, and more.” I’ve used it many times for research and even built a fence based on images in one of the books contained in their Building Technology Heritage Library. In addition to digitizing books, records and other media they maintain the Wayback Machine which archives a searchable selection of websites.

In 2009 they purchased a massive Christian Science church building at the corner of  Funston and Clement in the Richmond district of San Francisco. The paradoxical physical presence of the Archive is as much a story about the virtual as it is about the decline and repurposing of old-school religious institutions but that story will need to be told in another blog post.

The building houses the servers that host the Internet Archive and use the always cool air of this westerly part of San Francisco to chill the electronics without AC. The building also serves as a research and development facility for figuring out ways to digitize books, records and other types of physical media.

The Internet Archive has always been at the controversial, bleeding edge of copyright law and has landed in the news recently due to their ongoing legal troubles. In addition to the public domain material on their website they also host copyrighted books that you can check out for a period of several hours. They maintain physical copies of this material and when you check out the digital copy they temporarily withdraw the physical book.

A group of publishers did not agree with this arrangement and sued. The judge agreed and the injunction will remove a significant number of the books they currently lend online. Concurrently, a group of record labels have sued to stop the Internet Archive’s efforts to digitize and make available recordings on 78rpm records. Parsing the dialectical relationship between the value of public domain material and the rights of creators and publishers is beyond my pay grade. Let’s just say it’s complicated and made more so by technology and the huge data models gestating in the, perhaps over-hyped, world of AI.

If you come by the archive at 1pm on Friday you’ll get a tour, often led by the founder Brewster Kahle. Kahle was on vacation so our tour was capably led by gentleman whose name I failed to get, unfortunately. After explaining the history of the building, our tour guide showed us the contraption they use to digitize books. He noted that the majority of the books they digitize are sent to the Philippines and digitized with cheaper labor.

You can donate books and other materials to the Archive. They have an app that will tell you if they need a particular item and will sometimes pay for shipping.

The Internet Archive is a throwback to the heady, more optimistic days of the Internet familiar to those of us older than 50 who can remember things like Mondo 2000 and rave fueled techno-optimism. Everything will be free! Undeniably useful, the Internet Archive contains many, entertaining quirks such as Ted Nelson’s collection of vintage junk mail and their annual celebration of Public Domain Day when materials lapse into free use.

Ceramic installation by Nuala Creed.

Ceramic installation by Nuala Creed.

If you’re in San Francisco the free tour is well worth it if just to meet the celebrity tech tour guides and the rotating art installations. And you can have lunch afterwards on Clement Street, sometimes known as “the other Chinatown” (I’d add less touristy Chinatown) and then go buy a book at Green Apple if you have lingering copyright guilt.