Archive for the ‘autonomous systems’ Category

The Elastic System – Data in a Cultural Institution

September 11, 2016 Leave a comment

One of the milestones in our Internet of Cultural Things-project (AHRC: AH/M010015/1) was the launch of artist Richard Wright’s Elastic System. With an interesting media archaeological angle, the art project creates an alternative visual browsing/search/request system on top of the existing British Library one. As an experimental pilot, this interface (an installation and soon an online version) returns the library to an age of browsable, visual access to books.


The King’s Library at the British Library in 1851. Now the King’s Library tower is the only permanently publicly exhibited collection at the BL. Source:

While still in the middle of the 19th century the library space could be seen more as a public space with visual access to the collections, the modern storage and delivery systems at the BL created a different sort of a spatial setting. The sheer increase in the number of items in its holdings necessitated this change that could be easily seen as a precursor to the issues the more recent information culture has had to face: lots of stuff that needs to be stored, equipped with an address, and locatable. The short animation Knowledge Migration by Richard Wright is one way to visualize the growth in acquisitions on a geographically mapped timeline. The video is a short animation made by Richard Wright,  showing “each item’s place and date of publication (or date of acquisition where available) since the library’s foundation in 1753.” Knowledge Migration used a random sample of 220,000 records from the print catalogue.

The current reality of the British Library as a data institution can be approached through its infrastructure, also the many datasets and systems, including the ABRS (Automated Book Requesting System); this infrastructure includes both the data based systems and digital catalogues, online interface and searchable collections, their automated robotic systems in Boston Spa storage/archive space and also the important human labour that is part of this automated system.

The Elastic System project introduction by Wright states:

“ELASTIC SYSTEM is a database portrait of the librarian Thomas Watts. In 1838 Watts invented his innovative “elastic system” of storage in order to deal with the enormous growth of the British Library’s collections.

The mosaic image of Watts has been generated from 4,300 books as they are currently stored in the library basements at St Pancras, an area not normally accessible to the public. Each one is connected live to the library’s electronic requesting system.

The Elastic System functions like a catalogue, allowing people to visually browse part of the British Library’s collections, something which has not been possible since Watts’ time. When a book is requested it is removed from the “shelf” to reveal a second image underneath, an image that represents the work that goes on in the library’s underground storage basements, the hidden part of the modern requesting system.”


You can view and use the installation system at the British Library in London until September 23, 2016 – it is located at the front of the Humanities Reading room (during library opening hours).

The online version will be launched in the near future.

Here’s Richard Wright’s blog post about his artistic residency at the British Library as part of our project: Elastic System: How to Judge a Book By Its Cover.

We are discussing these themes in Liverpool on September 14, 2 pm, at FACT – this panel on cultural data is part of the Liverpool Biennial public programme.




A thank you to Aquiles Alencar-Brayner (BL, Digital Curator) for the snapshots of the texts above.

The Earth (for the Posthuman Glossary)

November 12, 2015 Leave a comment

I am writing some entries (“Anthropocene”, “Medianatures”, “The Earth”) for the forthcoming Posthuman Glossary, edited by Rosi Braidotti and Maria Hlavajova. The project and some of the entries were the topic of seminars during May/June in Utrecht in a row of seminars, and the book I believe is expected to be out later in 2016.

Here’s one of the text – although in draft form (and not copy edited); a short text on the Earth. One can say topical for so many reasons: issues of climate change/disaster, as well as the perhaps linked enthusiastic discovery of Earth-like planets outside our solar system – a recurring theme in our current public discourse about space and science.

 The Earth

The Earth is a planet, of an age of about 4.54 billion years and defined by its geological formations, density, biosphere, hydrosphere and an atmosphere that sustains life. It’s more than a world for humans but an Earth that is defined by its life-sustaining conditions and its planetary relations (Woodard 2015). On a planetary level, it is one complex dynamic system where biosphere, atmosphere and many of the geological spheres interact; on an extra-planetary level it is as dynamic, part of the gravitational pull, periodic rotation, cosmic rays and the radiation of the sun. Buckminster Fuller coined it “spaceship earth” marking the speculative beginnings of post-planetary design: ‘We are all astronauts’ (Fuller 1969: 14) who spin in space traveling 60 000 miles an hour, in the midst of rich non-human life as well as the intensive relations to other planets and the sun.

The Earth is also a complex ecosystem where one should never mistake humans to be the centre of action but merely one part in a larger loop of processes. One way to refer to it is by way of a ‘holarchy arisen from the self-induced synergy of combination, interfacing, and recombination’ (Margulis and Sagan 1995:18).

Besides the life of the organic and the inorganic spheres, it is also a mediasphere by which we don’t have to think only of the Jesuit fantasies of the immaterial reality of cognition such as Teilhard de Chardin did–or what cyber culture then rehashed with a dose of Silicon Valley excitement–but the different visualisation systems that give us operational representations of the planet. This is the view of the Earth since the Vostok I-space flight in 1961: the first human that is orbiting the planet and able to describe the ground-detached view. It’s the Earth that features in the cover of the first Whole Earth Catalogue in 1968, and in the inside pages hailing the imagery of the satellite era: the necessary coffee table book of 243 NASA images, in full color, from the Gemini flights in 1965—for only $7. The Earth furnishes the home.

Screen Shot 2015-11-12 at 10.42.06 AM

Our understanding of the Earth is mediated by a variety of representational techniques and is itself a product of the technological era. ‘They alone shall possess the earth who live from the powers of the cosmos, quoted Walter Benjamin (2008: 58) in his short text ‘To the Planetarium’ from 1928, analysing technological ways of organising the physis – both the gaze upwards, and from up there, back downwards. The satellite based images of the Earth since 1960s and leading to the famous Blue Marble of 1972 (Apollo 17-flight) mark subsequent examples in the series of images that define the Earth from the space. The escape velocity (Virilio 1997) that allows accelerating objects from airplanes to space ships to leave the Earth’s gravity bound surface is also what then allows us to see the Earth from above. The old etymology of the Earth as eorþe referring to something different from the heavens and the underground gives way to a dynamic of vectors where the Earth becomes defined from the heavens. The energetic powers of acceleration transform into the visual survey from above. As Fuller puts it, writing in late 1960s, ‘However, you have viewed more than did pre-twentieth-century man, for in his entire lifetime he saw only one-millionth of the Earth’s surface.’ This media-enhanced understanding of the Earth seeps into the biological work of Margulis and Sagan even, when they narrate the new metamorphosis of visual epistemology that this technological thrusting and imaging brings about. It brings forth an imaginary of the orbital that is shared by satellites and astronauts: ‘As if floating dreamily away from your own body, you watch the planet to which you are now tied by only the invisible umbilicus of gravity and telecommunication.’ (Margulis and Sagan 1995: 18). They use such images and narratives to contribute to the idea of holarchic view where the human is part of the micro- and macrocosms. For them, the event is a sort of a planetary level mirror image that carries Jacques Lacan concept from babies to space: to perceive ‘the global environment’ as the ‘mirror stage of our entire species’ (Ibid.)

Much more than an echo of psychoanalytic stage for the planetary design, the mediated vision turned back on the earth itself was instrumental to a range of political, scientific and military considerations. Seeing the Earth from space was one such thing that had an effect on climate research (also impacted by the nuclear testing, see Edwards 2010). It had an effect on military planning and geopolitical evaluation. It opened up again a holistic view of the planet as one although at the same time as a complex system of non-linear kind. It contributed to a variety of cultural moods and movements. Even the gaze to the otherworldly away from the Earth was a way to sharpen the focus on the planet; But the technological gaze toward deep space with telescopes such as Hubble was never just about space and the interplanetary worlds. Geographical surveys benefited from the developed lenses and image processing of satellite-enabled remote sensing. (Cubitt 1998: 45-49) The perspective back to the Earth has enabled the fine-tuning accuracy of corporate digital maps such as Google Earth and a massive military surveillance system too.

The Earth is constantly targeted by satellites and remote sensing systems such as the Planetary Skin institute. The institute is one among many systems that offer polyscalar view of multiciplity of processes for analysis. It boasts with the ideal of reading these as “scalable big data” that benefits communities and can “increase, food, water, and energy security and protect key ecosystems and biodiversity” (quoted in Bishop 2016). Alongside systems as the Hewlett Packard’s Central Nervous System for the Earth (CeNSE) it creates real-time surveillance systems that intend more than mere observation. As Ryan Bishop (ibid.) argues, these are massive level systems for constant data-based interpretation of the various scales of the Earth that indeed define a specific corporate-security angle on a planetary scale.

Our relations with the Earth are mediated through technologies and techniques of visualization, sonification, calculation, mapping, prediction, simulation, and so forth: it is primarily through operationalized media that we grasp the Earth as an object of analysis. Even the surface of the earth and geological resources used to be mapped through surveys and field observation. But now this advances through remote sensing technologies (see also Parikka 2015). One can argue that they are in a way extensions of Leibniz’s universal calculus, which offered one way to account for the order of the earth, including its accidents like earthquakes (such as the infamous 1755 in Lisbon). But as the architect-theorist Eyal Weizman argues, this calculation of the Earth is now less organized according to the divine order of Christian Deity and more about the “increasingly complex bureaucracy of calculations that include sensors in the subsoil, terrain, air, and sea, all processed by algorithms and their attendant models.” (Weizman, Davis, Turpin 2013: 64) Also practices of meteorology are to be understood as such cultural techniques and media operations that order the dynamics of the sky as analyzable data. The terrestrial opens up through what circulates above it, the atmosphere becomes a way to understand the ground and the orbit is where the understanding of the Earth begins by way of massive data-driven remote sensing systems. The nomos of the Earth that defines its geopolitics is one that reaches out to the heavenly spheres as much as to the multi-scalar data-intensive operations (see Bratton 2015).


Benjamin, W. (2008) ‘To the Planetarium.’ In Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 58-59.

Bishop, R. (2016) ‘Felo de se: The Munus of Remote Sensing’. Boundary2, forthcoming (estimated 2016).

Bratton, B. (2015) The Stack. On Software and Sovereignty. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Cubitt, S. (1998) Digital Aesthetics. London: Sage.

Edwards, P. (2010) The Vast Machine. Computer Models, Climate Data, and the Politics of Global Warming. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Fuller, B. (1969) ‘Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth’ Online at (originally published in 1968).

Margulis, L. and Sagan, D. (1995) What is Life? New York: Simon & Schuster.

Parikka, J. (2015) A Geology of Media. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Virilio, P. (1997) Open Sky. Trans. Julie Rose. London: Verso.

Weizman, E.; Davis, H. and Turpin, E. (2013), “Matters of Calculation: Eyal Weizman in Conversation with Heather Davis and Etienne Turpin,” in Architecture in the Anthropocene: Encounters among Design, Deep Time, Science, and Philosophy, ed. Etienne Turpin. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Open Humanities Press, 63-82.

Woodard, B. (2015) ‘Less World to be Ourselves. A Note on Postapocalyptic Simplification’ E-Flux Supercommunity, August 6,

Autonomous AI as Weapons, Policy and Economy

August 11, 2015 Leave a comment

WIth my colleague Ryan Bishop we did some popular writing over the summer and responded to the recent call to ban autonomous weapons systems. The open letter was widely discussed but usually with the same emphases, so we wanted to add our own flavour to the debate. What if they are already here? What if the media archaeology of autonomous weapons goes way back to the experimental weapons development started during the Cold War?

Here’s our short piece in The Conversation. It was rather heavily edited so I took the liberty to paste below the longer original version (not copyedited though).


Ryan Bishop and Jussi Parikka, Winchester School of Art/University of Southampton
Autonomous AI as Weapons, Policy and Economy

A significant cadre of scholars and corporate representatives recently signed an open letter to “ban on offensive autonomous weapons systems.”  The letter was widely publicised and supported by well-known figures from Stephen Hawking to Noam Chomsky, corporate influentials like Elon Musk, Google’s leading AI researcher Demis Hassabis and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak. The letter received much attention in the news and social media with references to killer AI robots and mentions of The Terminator, adding a science-fictional flavour. But the core of the letter referred to an actual issue having to do with the possibilities of autonomous weapons becoming a wide-spread tool in larger conflicts and in various tasks “such as assassinations, destabilizing nations, subduing populations and selectively killing a particular ethnic group.”

One can quibble little with the consciences on display here even if scholars such as Benjamin Bratton already earlier argued that we need to be aware of much wider questions about design and synthetic intelligence. Such issues cannot be reduced to the Terminator-imaginary and narcissistically assume that AI is out there to get us.  Scholars should anyway address the much longer backstory to autonomous weapons systems that make the issue as political as it is technological.

The letter concludes with the semi-Apocalyptic and not altogether inaccurate assertion that “The endpoint of this technological trajectory is obvious: autonomous weapons will become the Kalashnikovs of tomorrow. The key question for humanity today is whether to start a global AI arms race or to prevent it from starting.” However this not the endpoint but rather it is the starting point.

Unfortunately the AI global arms race has already started. The most worrying dimension of this AI arms race is that it does not always look like one. The division between defense and offensive weapons was already blurred during the Cold War.

The doctrine for pre-emptive strike laid waste to the difference between the two. The agile capacity to reprogram autonomous systems means all systems can be altered with relative ease, and the offensive/defensive distinction disappears even more fully.

The new weapons systems can look like the Planetary Skin Institute or the Central Nervous System for the Earth (by Hewlett-Packard), two of the many autonomous remote sensing systems that allow for automated real-time responses to the conditions they are meant to track. And to act on that information. Automatically.

In the present, platforms for planetary computing operate with and through remote sensing systems that gather together real-time data and of the earth for specific stakeholders through models and simulations. A system such as the Planetary Skin Institute, initiated by NASA and Cisco Systems, operates under the aegis of providing a multi-constituent platform for planetary eco-surveillance. It was originally designed to offer a real-time open network of simulated global ecological concerns, especially treaty verification, weather crises, carbon stocks and flows, risk identification and scenario planning and modeling for academic, corporate and government actors (thus replicating the US post World War II infrastructural strategy). It is within this context of autonomous remote sensing systems that AI weaponry must be understood; the hardware and software, as well as overall design and implementation, are the same for each. Similarly provenance for all of these resides primarily in Cold War systems designs and goals.

The Planetary Skin institute now operates as an independent non-profit global R & D organization with its stated goal of being dedicated to “improving the lives of millions of people by developing risk and resource management decision services to address the growing challenges of resource scarcity, the land-water-food-energy-climate nexus and the increasing impact and frequency of weather extremes.” It therefore claims to provide a “platform to serve as a global public good,” thus articulating a position and agenda as altruistic as can possibly be imagined. The Planetary Skin Institute works with  “research and development partners across multiple sectors regionally and globally to identify, conceptualize, and incubate replicable and scalable big data and associated innovations, that could significantly increase the resilience of low-income communities, increase food, water, and energy security and protect key ecosystems and biodiversity”. What it does not to mention is the potential for resource futures investment that could accompany such data and information. This reveals the large-scale drive from all sectors to monetize or weaponize all aspects of the world.

The Planetary Skin Institute’s system echoes what a number of other remote automated sensing systems provide in terms of real-time, tele-tracking occurrences in many parts of the globe. The slogan for the institute is “sense, predict, act,” which is what AI weapons systems do, automatically and autonomously. Autonomous weapons are said to be “a third revolution in warfare, after gunpowder and nuclear arms” but such capacities for weapons have been around since at least 2002. At that time drones transitioned to being “smart weapons” and thus enabled to select their own targets to fire on (usually using GPS locations on hand-held devices). Geolocation based on SIM cards is now also used in U.S. drone assassination operations.

Instead of only about speculations concerning the future, autonomous systems have an institutional legacy as part of the Cold War. They are part of our inheritance from WWII and Cold War complex systems interacting between university, corporate and military based R&D. Such agencies as the American DARPA are the legacy of the Cold War, founded in 1958 but still very active as a high risk, high gain-sort of a model for speculative research.

The R&D innovation work is also spread out to the wider private sector through funding schemes and competitions. This illuminates essentially the continuation of the Cold War schemes also in the current private sector development work: “the security industry” is already structurally so tied to the governmental policies, military planning and to economic development that to ask about banning AI weaponry is to point to the wider questions about the political and economic systems that support military technologies as economically lucrative area of industry. Author E.L. Doctorow once summarised the nuclear bomb in relation to its historical context in the following manner: “First, the bomb was our weapon. Then it became our foreign policy. Then it became our economy.” We need to be able to critically evaluate the same triangle as part of autonomous weapons development that is not merely about the technology but indeed about policies and politics, and increasingly, economies and economics.