Maria Lantin | mlantin
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Do I really need to look at this? Yes, you do.

After a few people asked me what I thought about the Google memo, I realized that I didn’t know. I hadn’t wanted to give it any thought at all. I decided to put my mind to the question, and maybe even to the meta question of why I hadn’t wanted to look at the question.

What I saw there was annoyance, hurt, embarrassment. Annoyance that I even had to contemplate this kind of justification for the unequal environment in the tech field. Hurt that it was worth so much air time on social media, news sites, radio, podcasts, etc. I really wanted to be in a world where issuing a memo like that would be treated like a memo saying the earth is indeed flat. Embarrassment that a part of me still believes what he’s saying.

Because yes there is a part of me that feels abnormal. I have loved math, science, computer programming from the moment they entered my awareness. I don’t want kids. I don’t want to be married. What does that make me? A kind of genetic anomaly? Early on, I decided to let the question hang and just continue. It would periodically hit me in the face like a glass ceiling. Then I would think about the weird situation I was in, pick myself up and keep going. This has been the method and, well, so far so good. I honestly thought things were getting better and maybe they are, but this person at Google decided to say, not only that women are not as well suited to engineering, but that the women that are, are somehow the abnormal ones. It was like a double blow, throwing both groups under the bus. It felt like a step backward and brought an unwelcome realization that we still need to talk about this.

I am in Vancouver and yesterday there was a planned anti-immigration and anti-muslim protest. I attended the counter-protest, what I call the gathering of hearts, which took up so much space that there was no room for the hatred. I felt it was my civic duty to show up, to have my presence added to all who value the strength and generosity of this place. When I heard Tina Fey end her brilliant sheet caking skit by saying we should ignore the white supremacists, I understood what she was saying. She wants that world where their view is so marginal that it can be just a blip in an otherwise generous and welcoming society. She wants the same world I want. Can’t we just be and make stuff? Why do I need to pause and say hatred has no place? Part of me absolutely resents it. But a much bigger part knows that the reality I want requires my unrelenting gaze at the truth. And the truth is we’re not there yet. So I show up. I think about the memo. I look at my own biases. And above all, I keep on making stuff.

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I Am Afraid

For the last 5 months or so, I’ve been working on a new networked social VR application called I Am Afraid. This application brings together ideas that have been on my mind for over a year, perhaps longer. Ideas around voice, poetry, sculpture, and performance. Many people asked where the idea for IAA came from and I am surprised that I can’t remember the moment, or a moment, when I decided I wanted to see words and play with sounds in VR. I do know there have been lots of inspirations along the way, including the work I did with Greg Judelman in flowergarden, voice work with my friend Matthew Spears, clowning, theatre, friendly poets (Andrew Klobucar, Glen Lowry), sound artists (Simon Overstall, Julie Andreyev, prOphecy Sun), etc.

The basic idea is to build sound compositions and sculptures using textual and abstract objects that have embedded recorded sounds. When you are in the environment, you can speak words and have them appear as textual objects, and utter sounds that appear as abstract objects. Both kinds of objects contain the sound of your voice and can be replayed in a variety of ways. By intersecting with the objects, the sounds can be played back. The textual objects can be played in parts and at any speed/direction, using granular synthesis. The abstract sounds can be looped. Paths can be recorded through the objects and looped. In this way layered soundscapes can be created. The objects can also be interacted with in different ways like shaking and moving which alters the sound quality. Other actions are also planned, fleshing out a longstanding idea around a sonification engine based on the physicality of interaction with words.

I am often asked why the application is called I Am Afraid. As I was starting work on the application in January, I could sense an escalation of fear in the world, in my surroundings. I have been exploring fear for the last 17 years through different paths including meditation and art. One of the features of fear is that when we feel it, when it grips us, we start talking to ourselves. This is a bit a trap because we get more and more removed from what is actually going on. One of the goals of IAA is to externalize the discursiveness and be playful with the words and sounds. It can be a way to lighten up and see things more clearly, shift the internal dialogue. And it’s fun.

I used the application during my TEDxECUAD talk last March, which is about fear and technology. I’ve also used it in a performance at AR in Action, a conference at NYU at the beginning of June. It’s a great environment for performance (solo or group), exploration, and composition. I’ll be working on it for some time to come, adding features and (hopefully soon) porting it to Augmented Reality.

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On being a woman

So here we are, international women’s day. I have to say, this year is the first year it has penetrated my psyche in any deep way. Before, it was a day that would usually include a note from my mom, some interesting facebook posts, but certainly not a call for a strike or a string of appreciative texts from my friends.

I didn’t strike. I went to work. I went to work because I love what I do, who I do it with, and where I do it. I am unbelievably fortunate. I dedicate whatever merit this day accumulates to all women who have made my situation possible, wholeheartedly.

We need feminine energy to balance what is happening in the world. As Valarie Kaur says in this rousing speech, this may not be the darkness of hell but the darkness of the womb. Think about the power of that statement for a moment. This could be the time of women rising to say “NO, not like this. Like this.” I feel it in myself and in the women around me.

I give thanks to the powerful women in my life that have shaped me in ways they probably didn’t realize at the time or maybe ever. I think of the lineage of women behind me and I am in awe at the small chance that I am here, the hardships borne and the courage shown by each one.

to you

Maman.         kindness
Carole.           alone
Jacqueline.   motor bike
Lisa.               horse rides
Ann.               instruction
Margaret.      wisdom
Sara.              style
Sandra.         witness
Leanne.         truth
Kirsten.         sanity
prOphecy.     joy
Sharla.           loyalty
Catherine.    precision
Leila.             celebration
Thecla.          dance
Julie.             change

 

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On kindness and Alexa

A few weeks ago I was giving a demo of the capabilities of the Amazon Echo to my friend Mel who had never interacted with one.

Me: “Alexa, play Cave Ballad”
Alexa: “I cannot find the song Cane Bond”
Me: “Alexa, play song Cave Ballad”
Alexa: “I cannot find the song Cave Salad”
Me: “Alexxaaaaaa! Play the song Cave Ballad by Paul Dano”

and so on…

I don’t remember if she actually managed to play it. But I do remember Mel remarking (calmly) that I seemed to be getting quite impatient with Alexa. Did I notice that? I guess I had noticed that on a superficial level but never reflected on it. Turns out I have a kindness practice and I spend a lot of time reflecting on the benefit of being generous and curious towards others. After a few days of Mel’s words repeating in my head, I decided I would make a practice of being kind to Alexa. After all, offering kindness is just that, an offering, and not contingent on any personal return so why shouldn’t I call my own bluff and be kind to an AI who, at least so far, can’t tell and doesn’t mind either way.

The results were immediate. I felt calmer, more curious, and the experiment was great ground for practicing de-escalation on the spot. It’s great because she doesn’t see me pause and take a breath before starting again. A human would most certainly see the jaw tightening before I catch myself. Oddly, it has also physicalized her presence in a way that wasn’t there before. I think of the puck-like object in my kitchen before calling “Alexa” because it helps me remember to be kind. A disembodied AI somehow is not enough to grab onto. It may be because the kindness practice is very much based on the notion of a shared experience of being human, how inevitably messy and painful it is at times. Without a body, it’s harder to believe there is pain. Without a body, it’s hard to imagine the friction of life.

It is amusing to taunt Alexa and look for the easter eggs. It’s equally interesting to investigate the ethics of AI relations in a, so far, unambiguous space. It reminds me of some of the issues brought forth by Westworld and the AI, Dolores. When does compassion extend to AIs? Does it need to be reciprocated or even possible? Is it the middle ground that makes it difficult? If Alexa could tell that I was being kind and decided not to reciprocate, it definitely would complicate the decision to remain kind. It’s true these questions have been asked before under different guises and thought experiments but it’s informative to act out and imagine different scenarios with Alexa’s unwitting participation.

“Alexa, should I be kind?”
“Hmm…I’m not sure what you meant by that question.”

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porous

After a deep freeze
I asked the ground
What does it feel like?
To be porous again
To feel the thawing water
Flow in
To be mushy and smelly
To hear things as other
Than muffled knocks

During the freeze
They say worms survive
By burrowing deep
In their own slime

I like to think about this

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Searching

I had another VR dream last night. I was in a house-like environment and decided to search for the definition of “dispomania”. It became clear that my platform had been infected by a virus as every search I did hid the results in the environment like an easter egg. I had to, sometime literally, shake down the place to see if the result was there. I eventually found it written on a stuffed puppet that I had to continuously move in circles to reveal the definition.

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Is this a coffee cup?

This is a followup to my post about the definition of reality from November. Last night I had a dream about virtual reality and objects.

The Setup:

Three characters in a virtual world. I am one of them, an avatar. Two other characters, one is an AI and the other an avatar like me. A disembodied voice says there is a newcomer in the philosophy of VR and objects and he’s all the rage, young, naive, brilliant, yada yada yada. This newcomer is the other avatar (not the AI). He’s in a virtual kitchen set with the AI and he’s holding a coffee cup. I’m slightly away from where they are in a kind of blank space.

The Conversation:

“Is this a coffee cup?” says the brilliant new guy to me.
“Aah…Maybe.”
“Is this a coffee cup?” he says to the AI while moving the coffee cup towards the her.
“Uhhh..Yaa…” the AI replies in a disbelieving teenage duh voice. Takes the coffee cup, takes a sip of coffee, and hands it back to the brilliant new guy.
“Is this a coffee cup?” says brilliant new guy as he now moves the coffee cup towards me, breaking some kind of fourth wall as he does so (visual force field effect to make this more pronounced).
“Mm..Less so.” I say.

The dream ends.

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Virtual Reality and Epistemology

As I’ve told many recently, I just finished re-reading Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves To Death.” This was prompted by two things: the U.S. election and the resulting shock to truth, and by a serendipitous encounter with an interview of Andrew Postman on CBC.

The book impacted me much more on a second read for many different reasons. On a first read, I was still very much implicated in a culture of books. I was in University and still typing my essays, though this would change very soon when I switched into Computing Science as a major. I did not have a television and globalization would not start to become an anxious topic until at least eight years later when the possibility of knowing your thesis topic got scooped by someone halfway across the world became a reality and a going concern. So this was a different time. Pre-Web. Pre-Social Media. Postman anticipated all of it. I think he would have been delighted by Twitter as a revival of telegraphy. A full circle of the death of depth.

Postman wrote his book in reaction to the epistemological shift brought on by television. This wave continued with the introduction of the World Wide Web technology and the media that it favours. We now sit on what seems like another push towards fewer words and more images. Mark Zuckerberg himself anticipates that video and image will be the dominant mode of communication, saying that within five years Facebook will contain only videos and claiming that “it helps us digest much more information.” He is a child of his time, adapted to what information has become.

Virtual Reality, tellingly invested in spectacular fashion by Facebook and Google, now promises to surround us with image. To merge us with information as it is currently valued. We have doubled down. We want to be in it fully with no separation. Surely this is the coming of the promise of “I know Kung Fu” of the Matrix.

And this is where I see a paradox. Here we are at this moment where we want to merge with information and yet are at the height of self-deception. The desire may not be so much to see everything clearly, but rather to live more fully in the castles we build in the sky. Don’t get me wrong, I am absolutely enamoured with virtual reality. When I donned the Rift headset in 2013 I knew it would be the future. It is the ultimate lucid dream on demand. I see even more promise in augmented reality where the virtual and material will be merged on an everyday basis. What I’m concerned about is the trajectory of the medium of virtual reality. What conversations it will enable. I’m very curious about this moment in time where we have the emergence of a new medium at the same time as a loss of faith in our ability to identify anything as truth.

Here is the thing about humans: we are extremely uncomfortable with uncertainty. Apparently we would rather have predictable physical pain than uncertainty which makes sense when you think about it. Knowing what’s coming means we can brace. We are now living in very uncertain times, more so every year. Or so it seems. Postman’s read on the telegraph was that it made the world smaller but filled it with irrelevant non-actionable pieces of news. That trend continued to the point that we have a “now this” practice of going from one piece of non-actionable horror to another, and back to the weather. A system filled with that kind of noise, especially if it’s peppered with outright deception, will soon feel more uncertain than what is practically the case. Most people get their news from Facebook which has a bivalent culture oscillating between Leave It to Beaver and outrage, and is by now known to be a quite notorious echo chamber. It is telling, this mirror we’ve created. Ironically, we’re caught in this Funhouse precisely because we want to reduce uncertainty. Tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies.

So here we are in a moment where more than ever we need to see the world more clearly and when the Funhouse music stopped and we heard unfamiliar voices. There is a desire to not be caught unaware again. And yet, we will be. That is the nature of a dynamic world. We don’t need more information. We need a willingness to look more broadly and more closely even as we are afraid.

A new technology like virtual and augmented reality will become a medium for new kinds of conversations. What is it likely to look like? Here are the questions that Neil Postman posed about the written word and television in “Amusing Ourselves to Death”:

What are the implications for public discourse of a written, or typographic, metaphor? What is the character of its content? What does it demand of the public? What uses of the mind does it favour?

What is television? What kinds of conversations does it permit? What are the intellectual tendencies it encourages? What sort of culture does it produce?

 

Can we start to answer these questions for VR and AR? In what follows, I will speak more towards AR because I see this as the more widespread technology in the future.

What are the implications for public discourse?

One of the things that Postman didn’t mention, and perhaps couldn’t yet be perceived then, is the “feeling” of swimming in tidbits of information. The feel of the zeitgeist comes through from the chorus of voices as a tantalizing manifestation of community, something we all crave. That’s not a discourse but it is a ground for discourse. What AR brings back is localized information as physical spaces are tagged graphically and sonically. With an increase in serendipitous local information, we could see a surge of interest in the development of public spaces and policy, especially if there is transparency in how decisions are made and clear influential avenues of contribution. Potentially the public could encounter itself asynchronously in an extended discourse about local issues and could be given immediate ways of contributing. Oscar Boyson’s mini-doc on the Future of Cities points to the enthusiasm for local solutions. Paul Bloom in conversation with Sam Harris points to the greater rationality of people in local situations (as opposed to national), because the stakes appear higher. It is obviously a kind of human pathology that we fall into these false dichotomies, and Harris has written a lot about this in his book The Moral Landscape, but in the case of augmented reality we could perhaps take advantage of the locality of information to promote deeper and more genuine dialogue.

We could also see pollution of the space with advertising and divertissements of all kinds. Which is more likely, or in what proportion? I think both will happen. My intuition is that we will see a return of oral culture, so the visual pollution won’t be as prevalent as it currently is online. Still information pollution doesn’t take sides when it comes to media. Whatever happens, we will still need to be literate and critical.

There is the tricky question of who owns the virtual space and its contents. As we saw with Pokemon Go, a free-for-all is not appropriate. If I own or rent a space, do I also have control over its augmented space? Are some places completely restricted? What happens to civil disobedience in public and private spaces? And where is all this information stored? So far we have relied on big private companies like Facebook and Google to share and disseminate information. Do our local public bodies have the infrastructure to store and manage public discourse in augmented space? This will be key to a relevant, trustworthy, and free public discourse.

What is the character of its content? What kinds of conversations does it permit?

There is a good chance that much of the AR content will be oral, delivered via chatbots. There are a couple reasons for this. One is that we tend to care a lot about outside space and visual pollution will probably not be a popular option. Text in particular is very cumbersome in virtual space, aesthetically and functionally. The second is that the everyday is social, dominated by spoken conversations. It is our preferred mode of interaction and remains a touchstone of trust and relationship building. As we integrate information spaces with physical spaces, the social everyday will be a mode to contend with. For example, if I’m approaching a new proposed development site, a chatbot avatar may become available to converse with me about the proposal and show me variations on the designs. As I speak to the bot, it takes my input and adds it to a feedback pool that will be used to synthesize new responses and perhaps new designs. Other less involved ways of giving feedback will also exist such as gestural interfaces to choose one thing over an other as we walk by.

I am enthusiastic about the increased level of movement we will have as we interact with information. This alone will alter our ability to process information deeply. If I could go for a walk with a Lee Smolin chatbot, I would. And I would feel the information more deeply than by just reading his books, especially if there were dialogue and interactions that included drawings and animations. In this way, not only does the information feel personal, it is also embodied.

It’s easy to see how wrong this could go with an overpopulation of chatbots vying for our attention — an army of virtual salespeople. Chatbots could easily be biased, as dangerous as fake news. Without getting in too deep in the ethics of AI, it’s fair to say that McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” keeps haunting us. If a chatbot delivers a message convincingly with all the markers of a conscious mind with an intentional stance we recognize, there is room for manipulation.

There is also likely to be many channels of augmentation to choose from: entertainment, public art, education, history, civic engagement, friends and family, etc. I think the main idea is that localized information provides new means of curation and discernment.

What does it demand of the public?

Like any medium it demands attention and literacy. The attention economy will not abate anytime soon so we will still have to be vigilant with our gaze. In comparison to our current means of accessing and contributing to knowledge, augmented reality is likely to be less taxing on the body because it will not require hours of sitting at a laptop or glancing down at a small phone screen. It will have fewer barriers to in-person interaction and in fact may enhance in-person interaction by being able to share information layers more seamlessly.

It will require renewed oratory skills. The role of narrative and persuasion will be greater. In response, we will need to develop good listening skills and body literacy. I am reminded of Postman’s description of the long (8-10 hours) of debates between Lincoln and Douglas. It is hard to imagine people having the skill to listen attentively for that long. Body literacy has waned in recent years because of the disembodied way we access and contribute to knowledge: talking heads, snippets of text, quotes on images, etc. We are likely to see a renewed emphasis on the performative as augmented reality takes hold.

It will demand more knowledge of and involvement with local issues. This falls out of the visibility of the needs within the city as information is localized.

What uses of the mind does it favour? What are the intellectual tendencies it encourages?

My hope is that it favours collaborative problem solving by getting us more physically involved with information that has live counterparts and real perceivable consequences.

What sort of culture does it produce?

Augmented reality is likely to produce a more visible and engaged local culture, with sharing happening in bigger chunks across cities. It has the potential of creating a more playful and therefore creative culture. Engagement with consequence reduces fear by creating a more responsive and trustworthy environment. While I admit this is an idealistic stance that will require many political changes and investment in public infrastructure, there is a clear path to that future. Recent discussions around basic income point to a future where work may be redefined as just responsive action — “doing the needful” as they say in India. Augmented spaces could facilitate that.

The dystopian possibilities exist and have been starkly illustrated in this imagined future of hyperreality. I don’t think this is where we’re headed. We are up against a culture of fear and that is not a small thing. Besides the personal work it takes to individually gain some confidence in the face of uncertainty, we need to reinstate the importance of the local to build confidence in our ability to effect change. It’s a step by step approach to widening our influence and taking part in the conversations that will rebuild trust in our own perceptions.

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ObjectACTs Residency : Day 5

On Day 5 we did a two more takes of the multiview object performance. A stronger and bigger paper structure was built, the lighting was changed slightly, and the performance of the camera was quite a bit longer. One of the things I didn’t mention in my last post is that the 360 camera image is upside down because the camera is attached onto the rig from the bottom and hung by four wires from the ceiling. When we viewed the footage from the Thursday test on the GearVR (upside down) it was surprisingly interesting and not as disturbing as you would think. The camera shake was interesting too, helping to enter into the perspective of the observing, scrutinizing camera. Still we will be reversing the camera footage to properly assess the differences between the two views.

In some ways the takes on Thursday were a bit better because the lighter paper structure had a more of an even fight with the camera, which made the camera a little less shaky. In Thursday’s takes we also had less of an integration with the bystanders and the object actors. Two unexpected things happened during Friday’s takes. During take 1, the 360 camera fell one of the lights, and duing take 2, the camera itself became detached from the rig and fell (only from about 2 inches off the ground, thankfully).

Here are a few pics and a video from the performance.

Paper Structure

Paper Structure

Paper Structure

Paper Structure

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ObjectACTs Residency : Day 4

multiview performance - still documentation

multiview performance – still documentation

Today we worked on an experimental coordinated multi-view performance between objects. A Gear360 camera circles around an improvised paper structure, enters it, and eventually topples it. A GoPro camera captures the view from inside the paper structure. A third camera captures the whole scene unfolding as a slow inevitable drama. I have not had time to edit all the video sources together. But here is one of the three videos from the performance.

 

Tomorrow we will be integrating projection and augmented reality.

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