Augmentology"...is a concise manual of reality for our digital age."

Mark Hancock,_Augmentology: Interfaccia Tra Due Mondi_

[Sponsored by The Ars Virtua Foundation/CADRE Laboratory for New Media]

Part 3: The Crystal Ball

Film Still, The Wizard of Oz.

<continued from Part 2: Infinite Summer Afternoons>

During the 1939 film version of The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy visits Professor Marvel and has him read her fortune from his crystal ball. He asks her to close her eyes and takes the opportunity to “read” the belongings in her basket. From these artifacts, Professor Marvel pieces together a story based on his intuition of the meaning of the objects and the context of Dorothy’s visit. Professor Marvel is reading Dorothy’s aura by diving into her metadata and delivers his observations in dramatic and persuasive tones.

Now imagine if Dorothy visited Professor Marvel in the 21st century. His crystal ball is a web-ready mobile device capable of scanning Dorothy’s possessions, clothes, face – maybe even her DNA. This cloud of data is cross-referenced and interlinked with Dorothy’s online profiles and he’s able to quickly conjure up an extremely detailed impression of Dorothy’s past, present and future. At the very least, he’d spot Auntie Em in Dorothy’s Flickr account and come to similar conclusions about Dorothy’s family situation as he does in the film.

As aurec technology improves it will know more and more about us; it will become better at predicting what we do and how we prefer to do it. It will enable us to customize our interactions with everything that surrounds us while also allowing us to share these preferences with others. Search is the essential experience of the web (witness Google). The web asks us “what are you looking for?” every time we use it. To understand the potential of aurec we need to be sensitized to the fact that it will reduce the importance of the question/answer relationship posed by the web and open up an environment of ambient data.

It is my hope that shared aurec experiences will have positive effects on our relationships with other people, allowing us new degrees of emotional intimacy and mutual understanding. Aurec has the potential to change our relations with natural and urban environments by revealing otherwise hidden information on a bespoke basis. This could lead to increased corporate and governmental transparency/accountability as the norm shifts to a sharing paradigm as opposed to hiding data. The more we shift our attention away from gimmicky iphone apps and focus on the broader ontological implications of aura recognition, the more aurec will have the best chances of actualization.

Special thanks to NotThisBody for brilliant insights and reflections while writing this article.

Part 2: Infinite Summer Afternoons

Images from Initiations-Studies II by Panos Tsagaris
Images from Initiations-Studies II by Panos Tsagaris with Kimberley Norcott

Having summarily rejected the term augmented reality for the reasons listed here, I’ll now propose alternate terminology to describe the phenomenon. The following elements contribute to this formation:

  • The mobile web will enable us to become aware of metadata that was previously obscured in day-to-day life.
  • Many current AR applications pride themselves on exposing indications of present metadata relationships which are not as readily apparent as traditional urban indicators (think: fashion).
  • Contemporary visions of AR as something which will merely allow us to hold up our smart phones and look through an AR “window”.

This process of metadata revealing is termed “aura recognition” (or aurec for short). In a future post I will address what I see as shortcomings of visual interfaces for aurec.

In his essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1935), Walter Benjamin makes the  following observations regarding aura:

If, while resting on a summer afternoon, you follow with your eyes a mountain range on the horizon or a branch which casts its shadow over you, you experience the aura of those mountains, of that branch. This image makes it easy to comprehend the social bases of the contemporary decay of the aura. It rests on two circumstances, both of which are related to the increasing significance of the masses in contemporary life. Namely, the desire of contemporary masses to bring things “closer” spatially and humanly, which is just as ardent as their bent toward overcoming the uniqueness of every reality by accepting its reproduction. Every day the urge grows stronger to get hold of an object at very close range by way of its likeness, its reproduction.”

Certainly – since 1935 – these two “social bases” identified by Benjamin have reached their apex in contemporary digital life. Never before have we had as much convenience in bringing things – whether physical objects or information – into our immediate proximity (think: Amazon, Ebay, Google). Neither have we had the experience of such widespread meme and brand propagation in our physical environment (eg shopping malls, international airports, and fast food franchises). Benjamin continues:

Unmistakably, reproduction as offered by picture magazines and newsreels differs from the image seen by the unarmed eye. Uniqueness and permanence are as closely linked in the latter as are transitoriness and reproducibility in the former. To pry an object from its shell, to destroy its aura, is the mark of a perception whose “sense of the universal equality of things” has increased to such a degree that it extracts it even from a unique object by means of reproduction. Thus is manifested in the field of perception what in the theoretical sphere is noticeable in the increasing importance of statistics. The adjustment of reality to the masses and of the masses to reality is a process of unlimited scope, as much for thinking as for perception.”

This “sense of the universal equality of things” is the hallmark of the web. All searches are, ostensibly, equal before Google. Yet, among the ruins of this auric destruction, the web is simultaneously imbuing our lives with all kinds of unique and permanent phenomena. These phenomena make up the essence of our digital auras; auras created less by physical objects than by the specificity of context, relationship and juxtaposition. Aura Recognition is the means by which we access these phenomena.

Consider for instance how unique it is to geophysically meet someone who you’ve only previously known online. In the best case scenario, aurec will help us make sense of the emotional significance of digital phenomenon in ways which are meaningful and helpful. Location based services (think: GPS technology) provoke new experiences which are just as dependent on proximity as Benjamin’s proverbial summer afternoon.

<to be continued in _Part 3: The Crystal Ball_>

Part 1: Absurd Assumptions


As many opinion leaders have noted, Augmented Reality (AR) may very well be the next evolutionary step in bringing the metadata of the web into our day-to-day lives. Some suggest that AR technology may even surpass the Web in its sustained impact on culture.

While I whole-heartedly agree with this observation, the use of the term “Augmented Reality” may actually impede any progress forged by these technologies, especially in terms of broad/mainstream acceptance.

The first reason why the actual phrase “Augmented Reality” may impede the cultural uptake of associated technologies is via the use of the word “augmented” – meaning to raise or make larger. AR enthusiasts seem to be comfortable implying that this new technology is somehow the first technology to augment or enhance our reality. This seems absurd, as human societies have a well-documented history of using biochemical technology to augment reality in the tradition of psychotropic plant-aided shamanism. The innovation of written language was a concrete visualization of reality-augmenting metadata. The city may also be considered an extension of reality considering cities are highly constructed frameworks of architecture, roads, sewers, electrical and telephone lines. It seems more relevant to utilize a word that more accurately describes the idiosyncratic peculiarities of a mobile web-ready experience.

My second reason for objecting to the AR term stems from when the word “reality” is employed in relation to what are (in most cases) mobile-web applications. This usage implies that other computer applications are not affecting reality, or at least are not affecting reality sufficiently to be labeled accordingly. This also seems an absurd assumption; the host of software which has prevailed during the history of computing have had an affect on reality too (this, of course, is a total understatement). If it were not for preceding software which has already changed our reality, these so-called “augmented reality” applications would not even exist. Furthermore, this use of “reality” in this context indicates that there is one concrete reality which we are in the process of altering with specific technology. Yet, each of us have our own subjective “reality” experience, with some physicists even postulating theories of a holographic reality. While standards for augmented reality ought to be open to ensure accessibility by any mobile web-enabled device, it is a fallacy to interpret these standards as a consensus on reality itself. This new technology is posed to allow us to customize and tweak our own experience of our reality like never before, as well as the “reality” we share with others.

<to be continued in _Part 2: Infinite Summer Afternoons_>


…(a Tojolabal, two and a half years old, born during the first Intergalactic) is playing with a little car with no wheels or body. In fact, it appears to me that what Pedrito is playing with is a piece of that wood they call “cork”, but he has told me very decisively that it is a little car and that it is going to Margaritas to pick up passengers…The plane makes a pass over Pedrito’s hut, and he raises the stick and waves it furiously at the war plane. The plane then changes its course and leaves in the direction of its base. Pedrito says “There now” and starts playing once more with his piece of cork, pardon, with his little car. The Sea and I look at each other in silence. We slowly move towards the stick which Pedrito left behind, and we pick it up carefully. We analyze it in great detail. “It’s a stick,” I say. “It is,” the Sea says.

- A story from Subcommandante Marcos retold by Ricardo Dominguez

One of my recent attempts at exploring and establishing liberating spaces between realities is a series of performances called technésexual. In technésexual, myself and Elle Mehrmand (my partner/collaborator) perform erotic acts simultaneously in a geophysical space and virtually in Second Life. Using electrocardiogram heart monitor chest straps, Lilypad temperature sensors and Arduino/Freeduinos, we capture heart rate and body temperature data to transmitt to our avatars in Second Life. These transmissions act to bridge the physical space and the virtual environment via the use of audio. This type of linking is often experienced when having a conversation that involves different, yet connected, physical locations. Technésexual provokes questions concerning the representation of sexualities that lie outside restrictive LGBT/homo/hetero categories: such categories are rooted in binary gender assumptions. The mixing of realities in this project are a way of queering new media which parallels our own experiences of mixing genders and sexualities.

Virtual/Synthetic worlds like Second Life facilitate the development of new identities which allow for (as yet) unimagined relations and relationships. Technésexual looks closely at these new relationships and the potential they embody. There is a flipside to the potentialities inherent in the subversive use of Second Life, one that acknowledges that Linden Labs – the creators of Second Life – are attempting to create a walled garden and permanently lock in users. Similarly, the university is beginning to reveal itself as a self-perpetuating obsolescent institution as sites like aaaaarg.org provide instantly searchable digital texts. Any exclusive expertise involved in pinpointing particular topics becomes obsolete when the process is as simple as using a “find” command. If we can begin to understand the university as “managed death[, ] a machine for administering death, for the proliferation of technologies of death”, the need to remove or modify such institutions becomes urgent.

In a recent panel conversation concerning Alex Rivera (the director of Sleep Dealer), Cauleen Smith noted how science fiction is a genre that promotes critique of extant systems of oppression (including class, race and gender).

Mixed and Augmented Reality could likewise be employed subversively to modify Capitalism through the infiltration of entertainment – this would, in turn, present deep critiques of extant systems of power. In Protocol, Alexander Galloway discusses the need for protocological resistance under global Capitalism, where practical implementations are shown in the occupations of universities and virtual worlds. Second Life creates a desire for a free metaverse. Free Software (such as Open Sim) begins to offer a space beyond Second Life and its tightly controlled reality.

Aimee Mullins proposed in a recent article that:

…the generation of children growing up today has a distinct advantage in this realm of identity, thanks to their daily interaction with the internet and video games. It’s commonplace for them to create avatars and parallel representations of themselves, and they see their ability to change, transform, and augment those bodies to best suit their surroundings as beneficial.”

I would, however, suggest caution rather than pure optimism regarding choices available in identity creation: many of these selections can just as easily reinforce forces of social control as offer an alternatives to them. There is no inherent freedom implied in Reality shifting. In her recent book Simulation and its Discontents, Sherry Turkle describes a 13 year old girl who informed her interacting within SimCity taught her that “raising taxes leads to riots”. What lesson did the girl learn – how to be a better ruler or how to take part in a riot? It isn’t clear. What is clear are the reality cracks opening up in front of us every day. As we proceed to navigate (within) these cracks, we must be prepared to imagine, create and bridge these new realities.

“Yes, the university is a graveyard, but it is also a factory: a
factory of meaning which produces civic life and at the same time
produces social death. A factory which produces the illusion that
meaning and reality can be separated; which everywhere reproduces the
empty reactionary behavior of students based on the values of life
(identity), liberty (electoral politics), and happiness (private
property).”

- Anti-Capital Projects, The Necrosocial

“We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.
And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will –
we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study
too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . .
and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
- Presidental Aide to George Bush, New York Times

Institutionalized Reality is currently cracking, splitting and multiplying. In the last few days, students across California appear to have transformed from apathetic alienated youth (seemingly in search of a grade and an exit) into a powerful force occupying university buildings cross the state. A few months ago, the University of California seemed an unlikely avenue for genuine social upheaval. The geophysical actions of many in the last few days have substantially altered that.

The student unrest presently occuring at the University of California prompts the question: can the gaps between geophysical and virtual realities actualize as spaces of liberation and transformation? If Augmented Reality is going to manifest simply as a better way to find real estate, then I would say no. However, if people can create uses for Augmented Technologies that move beyond the demands of capital and corporate interests, then maybe so. Projects such as Can You See Me Now (Blast Theory) illustrate how Mixed Reality can unleash latent potential found in urban spaces, as well as operating as distracting forms of entertainment.

Ricardo Dominguez describes some of my recent collaborations as Minor Simulation. One such collaboration between myself, Ricardo Dominguez and Elle Mehrmand is http://ucop.cc, a project that presents hacktivist-modified website copy of the University of California Office of the President. The ucop.cc project was created as a protest against the recent University budget cuts, layoffs and tuition increases (totaling 44 percent this year alone). The main difference between the hacktivist and original websites is that in our version, President Mark Yudof announces a new $0 Tuition program with the tagline “A return to core values – a fresh start”. In an interview with the UCSD Guardian, Dominguez comments on the ucop.cc project: “For at least a moment, the circuit was disrupted. It allowed another possibility to occur — and that’s to reimagine what the university can be.”

The goal of the ucop.cc project was to create a space of disruptive possibility and to use cracks in mainstream understanding of net protocols to present a truly free University of California. Perhaps this can be seen as a way of using the space between “traditional” reality versions, between truth and fiction, and as a way of inspiring action and imagination. Part 3 will offer conclusions regarding using Mixed/Augmented Reality as a strategy for finding and creating liberating spaces.

http://occupyca.wordpress.com/