Pseudonymity, Anonymity, and Obfuscation

Ever get creeped-out when Facebook automatically recognizes you or one of your friends in a photo? Facial recognition has been around for ages, but it’s starting to get disturbingly adept. There are haircuts and makeup tactics that can trick such cameras and software into not recognizing your face as a face, like the “ugly shirt” in William Gibson‘s Spook Country (2008). Obfuscation is akin to masking your identity without wearing a mask.
CVDazzle

ObfuscationI loathe the phrase “hiding in plain sight,” but there’s no better way to easily describe the practice. “It’s a somewhat blurry line, but obfuscation is different than concealment,” Finn Brunton told Joe Uchill at Passcode. “Obfuscation is the production of ambiguous, confusing, or deliberately misleading information in context where direct observation cannot be avoided.” It can be a lot more technically complex than just encoding a message for a certain audience (see Wayner, 2009), but Brunton, along with Helen Nissenbaum, have just released the highly readable Obfuscation: A User’s Guide for Privacy and Protest (MIT Press, 2015), which covers all sorts of contexts and uses for obfuscation, including Facebook’s “real name” policy and social steganography. Brunton continues,

In the case of Facebook, people who are fighting the name policy might not be doing so because they want to conceal an identity, but because for them it’s very important that they are able to have two different identities. But people who are doing exactly that might also be using obfuscation on Facebook, in the sense that for example, in the middle of bland updates on a real name account is a note that only friends who understand their lives will get the actual significance, so that the really salient activity can be buried in a bunch of other things that all seem unimportant.

danah boyd and Alice Marwick (2011) found that some teenagers use allusions to music, movies, and shows as a form of obfuscation on social media. boyd calls it “social steganography” (p. 22). Users hide an encoded message where no one is likely to look for it: right out in the open. Carmen, one of their interviewees, has problems with her mother commenting on her statuses on Facebook. She finds it an invasion of her privacy, and her mom’s eagerness to intervene squelches the online conversations she has with her friends. When Carmen broke up with her boyfriend, she wanted to express her feelings to her friends without alarming her mother. Instead of posting her feelings directly, she posted lyrics from “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” Not knowing the allusion, her mom thought she was having a good day. Knowing that the song is from the Monty Python movie Life of Brian (1979) and that it is sung while the characters are being crucified, Carmen’s friends knew that all was not well and texted her to find out what was going on (boyd & Marwick, 2011).

The need for obfuscation as Brunton and Nissenbaum see it is largely based on all the data we give away everyday without knowing what end that data is being put toward. Our ignorance could be completely benign, but it could be held against us. We blindly trust entities that may not hold our best interests very dear. Our lack of knowledge and control is exactly what the authors wish to fight.

Improper NamesIn Improper Names: Collective Pseudonyms from the Luddites to Anonymous (University of Minnesota Press, 2015), Marco Deseriis follows the genealogy of another form of obfuscation: pseudonyms—from Ned Ludd to Luther Blissett, on through the massively “multiple-use,” improper name, Anonymous, among others. These collective pseudonyms are “improper” in the sense that their referents remain floating. “Contrary to a proper name,” Deseriis writes, “whose chief function is to fix a referent as part of the operation of a system of signs, an improper name is explicitly constructed to obfuscate both the identity and the number of its referents” (p. 3). Using these names not only hides users’ identities, their use evokes rich histories and aligns struggles with similar lineages. Deseriis pulls all of this together, illuminating an important yet oddly overlooked area of study.

In our age of increasing online anomie, these two books provide the tools for maintaining a modicum of control, wacky haircut and makeup notwithstanding.

References:

boyd, danah & Marwick, Alice E. (2011, September 22). Social Privacy in Networked Publics: Teens’ Attitudes, Practices, and Strategies. Paper presented at Oxford Internet Institute’s A Decade in Internet Time: Symposium on the Dynamics of the Internet and Society, Oxford, England.

Brunton, Finn & Nissenbaum, Helen. (2015). Obfuscation: A User’s Guide for Privacy and Protest. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Deseriis, Marco. (2015). Improper Names: Collective Pseudonyms from the Luddites to Anonymous. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Uchill, Joe. (2015, November 16). How to Hide Your Digital Trail in Plain Sight. CSM: Passcode.

Wayner, Peter. (2009). Disappearing Cryptography: Information Hiding: Steganography and Watermarking. Burlington, MA: Morgan Kaufmann.

Dispatches from Digital Dystopia

David Hoffman once summarized George Orwell’s 1984, writing that “during times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” Aaron Swartz, Chelsea (née Bradley) Manning, Adrian Lamo, Aaron Barr, and Edward Snowden have all been pawns and prisoners of information warfare. As the surveillance has expanded from mounted cameras to wireless taps, hackers have evolved from phone phreaking to secret leaking. It’s a ratcheting up of tactics and attacks on both sides. Andy Greenberg quotes Hunter S. Thompson, saying that the weird are turning pro. It’s a thought that evokes the last line of Bruce Sterling‘s The Hacker Crackdown (1991) which, after deftly chronicling the early history of computer hacker activity, investigation, and incarceration, states ominously, “It is the End of the Amateurs” (p. 301).

These quips can be applied to either side.

Sousveillance: Steve Mann
Sousveillance device via Steve Mann, 1998.

The Hacker Ethic — as popularized by Steven Levy’s Hackers (Anchor, 1984) — states that access to computers “and anything which might teach you something about the way the world works should be unlimited and total” (p. 40). Hackers seek to understand, not to undermine. And they tolerate no constraints. Tactical media, so-called to avoid the semiotic baggage of related labels, exploits the asymmetry of knowledge gained via hacking (Branwyn, 1994; Lievrouw, 2011; Lovink, 2002; Raley, 2009). In a passage that reads like recent events, purveyor of the term, Geert Lovink (2002) writes, “Tactical networks are all about an imaginary exchange of concepts outbidding and overlaying each other. Necessary illusions. What circulates are models and rumors, arguments and experiences of how to organize cultural and political activities, get projects financed, infrastructure up and running and create informal networks of trust which make living in Babylon bearable” (p. 254). Sounds like a description of the tumult behind Wikileaks and Anonymous.

This Machine Kills SecretsIn This Machine Kills Secrets (Dutton, 2012), Andy Greenberg explores the infighting and odd cooperation among those out to break and build boundaries around certain strains of information. It’s a tale of rogues gone straight, straights gone rogue, and the weird gone pro. It’s a battle over stiffly defined contexts, lines drawn and defended. He writes of the leakers, “They take an immoral act out of some special, secret culture where it seems acceptable and expose it to the world of moral human relationships, where it’s exposed as obviously horrific” (p. 311). Theirs are easy acts to defend when the extremes are so evident, but what about the more subtle contexts? As danah boyd puts it, “Privacy isn’t a binary that can be turned on or off. It’s about context, social situations, and control.” Privacy is not secrecy, but they’re so closely related that the former seems to be lost in the fight against the latter. They’re also so close as to be constantly conflated when debated.

We Are Anonymous

Following Matt Blaze, Neal Stephenson (2012) states “it’s best in the long run, for all concerned, if vulnerabilities are exposed in public” (p. 27). Informal groups of information insurgents like the crews behind Wikileaks and Anonymous keep open tabs on the powers that would be. After a cameo in This Machine Kills Secrets, Aaron Barr takes a more central role in We Are Anonymous (Little, Brown, 2012) by Parmy Olson. A high-end security consultant, Barr set out to expose Anonymous unprovoked, and quickly found himself on the wrong side of the line. Again, hackers are easy to defend when they’re on your side. Wires may be wormholes (Stephenson, 1996), but that can be dangerous when they flow both ways. Once you get locked out of all your accounts and the contents of your harddrive end up on the wrong screen, hackers aren’t your friends anymore, academic or otherwise. The recent DDoS attacks on several major torrent trackers should be raising more eyebrows on both sides.

Hackers of every kind behave as if they understand that “[p]ostmodernity is no longer a strategy or style, it is the natural condition of today’s network society” (Lovink, 2002, p. 259). In a hyper-connected world, disconnection is power. The ability to become untraceable is the ability to become invisible (Kluitenberg, 2008). We need to unite and become hackers ourselves now more than ever against what Kevin DeLuca (2007) calls “the acronyms of the apocalypse” (e.g., WTO, NAFTA, GATT, etc.; p. 47). The original Hacker Ethic isn’t enough when Shit is Fucked-Up and Bullshit (Wark, 2012). We need more of those nameless nerds, nodes in undulating networks of cyber disobedience. “Information moves, or we move to it,” writes Neal Stephenson (1996), like a hacker motto of “digital micro-politics” (Lovink, 2002, p. 254). Hackers need to appear, swarm, attack, and then disappear again into the dark fiber of the Deep Web.

Lovink (2002) continues: “The world is crazy enough. There is not much reason to opt for the illusion” (p. 259). Who was it that said Orwell was 30 years off? Tactical media is where we watch the ones watching us.

References:

Branwyn, Gareth. (1994). Introduction: Hackers: Heroes or Villains? In Knightmare, Confessions of a Super-Hacker. Port Townsend, WA: Loompanics Unlimited.

DeLuca, Kevin M. (2007). A Wilderness Environmentalism Manifesto: Contesting the Infinite Self-Absorption of Humans. In, R. Sandler & P. C. Pezzullo (Eds.), Environmental Justice and Environmentalism: The Social Justice Challenge to the Environmental Movement. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp. 27-55.

Greenberg, Andy. (2012). This Machine Kills Secrets. New York: Dutton Adult.

Kluitenberg, Eric. (2008). Delusive Spaces: Essays on Culture, Media, and Technology. Rotterdam: NAi Publishers.

Levy, Steven. (1984). Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday.

Lievrouw, Leah A. (2011). Alternative and Activist New Media. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

Lovink, Geert. (2002). Dark Fiber: Tracking Critical Internet Culture. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Olson, Parmy. (2012). We Are Anonymous. New York: Little, Brown, and Co.

Raley, Rita. (2009). Tactical Media. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Stephenson, Neal. (1996, December). Mother Earth, Mother Board. WIRED, 04.12.

Stephenson, Neal (2012). Some Remarks: Essays and Other Writing. New York: William Morrow.

Sterling, Bruce. (1991). The Hacker Crackdown: Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier. New York: Bantam.

Wark, McKenzie. (2012). Telesthesia: Communication, Culture, & Class. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

Summer Reading List, 2013

You know the drill by now: Every year I ask my readerly and writerly friends for their reading recommendations for the summer. New contributors to the list this year include Janet Murray, danah boyd, Rick Moody, Steve Jones, Matthew Kirschenbaum, Richard Kadrey, Benjamin Bratton, Brad Vivian, and Lily Brewer. Usual suspects holding down the tradition include Lance Strate, Alex Burns, Howard Rheingold, David Silver, Mark Amerika, Jussi Parikka, Dominic Pettman, Gareth Branwyn, Peter Lunenfeld, Patrick David Barber, and myself. Read on.

Lily at Powell's

As always, the book links will lead you to the book’s page on the Powell’s site unless otherwise noted.

danah boyd

One of my favorite unexpected delights this year was Natasha Dow Schüll’s Addiction by Design (Princeton University Press). This book provides an eloquent analysis of Las Vegas’ gambling Addiction by Designmachines, revealing how data and design are used to manipulate people for profit and pleasure. Addiction by Design offers a necessary critique of the economics-driven rhetoric that implies that technology use is simply about individual choice.

This was also a year where many friends of mine produced amazing books covering topics that are deeply important to me. In particular, three recent books provide complementary perspective on the intersection of technology and society:

Biella Coleman’s Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking (Princeton University Press) is an ethnographic account of the free and open source movement that untangles the values and practices of hacking.

Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford, and Joshua Green’s Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture (New York University Press) examines how information flows through social media.

Ethan Zuckerman’s Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection (W. W. Norton & Company) highlights the importance of understanding not just how information flows but also how people connect, laying the foundation for rethinking what global citizenship can and should be.

Rick Moody

I am all about the backlist these days, partly because I just finished teaching a course on narrative art before Cervantes at NYU, but also because that is sort of where my attention goes, so you might try a few of these if you haven’t already:

The Golden AssAupuleius, The Golden Ass, translated by Sarah Ruden (Yale University Press), which is the most profane, irreverent, and fascinatingly digressive text of antiquity, it seems to me, and which has lots to say about mystery cults, too. No reading experience of the last year has touched me as much.

The Sagas of Icelanders, various translators (Penguin Classics): These are the crime fictions of pre-Renaissance literature. Grim, violent, only fleetingly magical, and so hard to put down. The sagas about visiting North America are particularly fascinating. They did not have such a good time in Greenland.

The Ramayana, adapted by R. K. Narayan (Penguin Classics): Narayan’s edition is a mere portion of this 20,000 line Indian epic, and reflects a modern, twentieth century impulse, but it’s also a delight. Spare, funny, wry. The gods are virtuous, but inexplicable, and love is always a disaster, even, it seems, for the good guys.

Francois Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel, translated by M. A. Screech (Penguin Classics): An elegy to scatology, early modern ideas of the body, and alcoholism, funnier than almost any other book ever written, and a sly indicator of what was to come from the Marquis de Sade. Almost no one, it seems, read Rabelais anymore. Not one writing student in my class had read it, few had even heard of it, but this text sure turned some heads.

Miguel Cervantes, Don Quixote, translated by Edith Grossman (Harper Perennial): The greatest, mostly lovely, tender, and knowing book about the folly of humans, in an engaging, accessible, and literary translation. Everything comes from this book, despite what the Richardson scholars would tell you, except that everything in this book comes from some earlier origin (grailing literature, etc.). Whatever it is, this epic, it is imperative to the novel and how the novel would develop from here on out. And did you know that Shakespeare and Cervantes died on the same day? What a bad day that was art made out of language.

Lance Strate

It’s summertime, and the readin’ comes easy, and time itself is a topic of great interest for me. I was thrilled to learn of the recent publication of Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), by physicist Lee Smolin, where he argues for a position I’ve long held to be true, that time is more fundamental than space. On a similar theme, but coming from a very different angle, I also plan to read Keeping Together in Time: Dance and Drill in Human History (ACLS Humanities) by our greatest living world historian, William McNeil.

On the subject of media and culture, I have lined up Oral Tradition and the Internet: Pathways of the Mind (University of Illinois Press) by the late John Miles Foley; I saw him give a talk on this topic a few years ago at an annual meeting of the Media Ecology Association, and know that he makes an important contribution to our understanding of media environments. I am very interested in how the electronic media undermine print-based concepts of identity, which is why The Digital Evolution of an American Identity by C. Waite (Routledge) is a must read as far as I’m concerned. Present ShockReturning to the theme of time, Douglas Rushkoff‘s latestPresent Shock: When Everything Happens Now (Current) is high up on my list of priorities. And looking back to an earlier time, the origin of monotheism, related as it is to the introduction of the Semitic alphabet, is another subject of significance for me, which is why my list includes From Gods to God: How the Bible Debunked, Suppressed, or Changed Ancient Myths and Legends (Jewish Publication Society) by Avigdor Shinan and Yair Zakovitch.

Having been absolutely blown away by the new Hannah Arendt film by Margarethe von Trotta, which I highly recommend as an excellent audiovisual supplement to any summer reading list, I want to return to her final work, The Life of the Mind (Mariner Books), which was edited by her best friend, the novelist Mary McCarthy (who plays a significant role in the film). I’m also planning on digging into The Self Awakened: Pragmatism Unbound by Roberto Mangabeira Unger (Harvard University Press).

Last year, at the Players Club in New York, I heard the late M. Z. Ribalow do a reading from his outstanding novel, Redheaded Blues (NeoPoiesis Press), and I have been looking forward to sitting down with the book for a long time now. Back on the subject of time, I know I’ll be enjoying Paul Levinson’s latest time travel novel, Unburning Alexandria, (JoSara MeDia). And when it comes to graphic novels, there is no question that I am going to devour Vol. 18 of The Walking Dead (Image Comics). I have grown increasingly more fascinated at the way the plot of the television series diverges from the story told in the comics.

One of the great summertime pleasures is picking up a book of good poetry, and This Poem by Adeena Karasick (Talonbooks) promises to be a literary, aesthetic, and intellectual delight, judging by all of the rave reviews that it’s received. And finally, I’m not making any promises, but I have this copy of John Milton’s The Complete English Poems (Knopf) waiting to be read…

Janet Murray

I am giving a talk in the UK in July so perhaps that is why two novels written by English women were at the top of my iPad queue: Kate Atkinson, Life After Life (Reagan Arthur Books) which I read as soon as our semester ended, which at Life After LifeGeorgia Tech means early May. It turned out to be quite a revelation for how far what I call the “Replay Story” has made it into mainstream serious fiction.Atkinson is as inventive as Borges or Eco or as Ursula Le Guin was in Lathe of Heaven, but this is not a self-conscious literary experiment or a sci-fi fable; she is working much closer to lived experience, with realized characters in recognizable historical circumstances, yet offering multiple possible lives for the same character. It was odd to read this multisequential story on my iPad with a hyperlinked Table of Contents that was incidental to the structure, not designed for it but suggestive of an evolving digital form. I wound up blogging about the lessons it offers us about narrative structure in interactive formats.

Next up is Jane Gardam, Last Friends (Europa Editions) — the third novel in a trilogy told from each of three members of an unlikely love triangle but I may have to go back and review the other two which came out years ago. I absent-mindedly ordered this in both paper and electronic form, but I am keeping both because I want it on the shelf next to the other two but I also want to read it anywhere.

I also hope to make a dent in that perennial pile of books I have been meaning to read including several at the intersection of cognition and culture — notably, Mark Johnson, The Meaning of the Body (University of Chicago Press) and Michael Tomasello, Constructing a Language (Harvard University Press). I never miss Emily Nussbaum’s weekly TV criticism in the New Yorker, and I’ve just found Kathryn’s Shulz’s equally smart and well-written book review column in New York Magazine and found myself ordering Americanah by C. N. Adiche (Knopf), a Nigerian born novelist whom I had not heard of before, on the basis of Schulz’s review. Of course the summer will be shorter than I anticipated and will be very busy with administrative work and travel and family visits so I will probably be cutting and pasting this when you ask me again next year.

Steve Jones

I’m about to begin reading Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker (Random House). Summer reading, for me, generally involves reading for pleasure, though it always somehow circles back to my intellectual interests, and in this case the idea that time, literally, physically, slows, strikes a chord. Abbey Road to Ziggy StardustSpeaking of chords, I’m finishing up Ken Scott’s Abbey Road to Ziggy Stardust (Alfred Music), which, as a huge Beatles fan I’d love anyway, but as a history of the recording of popular music it’s unparalleled. There is plenty of technical detail, and the narrative is well written. Rather than try to tell his story chronologically, Scott largely goes artist by artist, to great effect. Somehow I keep coming back around to my earliest scholarly fascination with how musicians, engineers and producers talk about music and recording, and how that discourse is influenced by, and influences, recording technology.

The next books on the table are George Packer’s The Unwinding: An Inner History of America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) and Michael Burlingame’s two volume Abraham Lincoln: A Life (Johns Hopkins University Press). I have noticed lately that quite a few pundits seem intent on noting that the present political era in the U.S. is neither different from, nor worse than, many in the past. While I think such comparisons are interesting and potentially useful, the more interesting thing to me is that the country continues to muddle along. Whether this is from inertia, from lack of alternatives (a civil war seems somehow unimaginable, even though the last civil war veterans died in the 1950s, not so long ago in historical terms), or from the rapidity with which election cycles seem to come and go and provide illusions of alternatives, I don’t know, but I’m particularly interested in juxtaposing these books.

I’d like to get to Charles Emmerson’s 1913: In Search of the World Before the Great War (Public Affairs), but it seems unlikely given that it is already June. I still don’t feel as if I have a good grasp of World War I and its consequences for modernism, and from reviews I’ve read Emmerson may provide some illumination.

Richard Kadrey

I’ll be writing my new Sandman Slim this summer, so reading will have to fit around my writing schedule. There are four books I know I’ll get to.

I’m really looking forward to Charlie Huston’s Skinner (Mulholland Books). I’ve read all of Huston’s work, starting with the Henry Thompson crime books and his Joe Pitt vampire series. I’m looking forward to Huston’s take on the intelligence business and terrorism.

The Ocean at the end of the Lane by Neil Gaiman (William Morrow) is a bit of a cheat. All the Young DudesI read an early copy and enjoyed it immensely. It’s a book about childhood and terrifying magic, but it’s also about the horror of being young, the casual cruelty of adults, and the terror of remembering or worse, not remembering. I want to go through the book again, slower this time. It’s fun watching Gaiman crank the gears.

Another book I’m looking forward to is Edge of Dark Water by Joe Lansdale (Mulholland Books). Some of the chatter around it seems to pitch it as a young adult title, probably because of its young protagonists. However, like Gaiman’s book, young characters don’t necessarily add up to a kid’s book. I’m a sucker for all things Lansdale and a dark and murderous road story sounds just right for the summer.

Mark Dery has a new ebook called All the Young Dudes: Why Glam Rock Matters. Dery is a cultural critic with a keen eye for the secret meanings and influences of pop culture. All the Young Dudes is the first book from bOING-bOING, the culture, politics, and tech site. If Dery is their first author, I think we can look forward to more interesting work coming from them.

Benjamin H. Bratton

With an eye toward what I will be writing about in the Fall, Summer is usually a time when I inhale a lot of books, starting more than I finish. Two books at the top of my pile concern architecture’s relationship to computational materialism.  Luciana Parisi’s Contagious Architecture: Computation, Aesthetics, and Space (The MIT Press), draws on Alfred North Whitehead to develop an open-ended theory of algorithms as a “mode of thought,” more than just a mode of drawing or fabrication. Her take is a welcome alternative to the simplistic reductionism on offer by some of the perspectives closely associated with Parametricism. Architecture Xenoculture is a special issue of eVolo, guest edited by my friend, Juan Azulay, along with Benjamin Rice. It is a wild collection of works, ideas, and provocations from Reza Negarestani, J. G. Thirwell, Hernan Diaz-Alonso, Perry Hall, Terry Riley, and many others. It’s a good approximation of what a posthuman, postdisciplinary architecture would look like today.

Red PlentyMy favorite novel I’ve read in the last few months is Red Plenty (Graywolf Press) by Francis Spufford. Through a series of interwoven vignettes, it recounts the dreams and failures of Soviet cybernetics and its plans to realize the State as a universal platform-of-platforms. It’s clear (at least to me) that there is no way to imagine a genealogy of Google’s informational cosmopolitan ambitions without including this era as a key antecedent (I suppose, for better or worse, it would be impossible then to think about the contemporary fate of ‘communism’ without including Google’s own Gosplan.) Beyond States and markets, what ties this novel’s protagonists to Google’s is a belief in the power of the platform to organize the world in its image. Ideally it should be read in conjunction with Alexander Bogdonav’s Red Star (Indiana University Press), a 1908 Sci-Fi novel about a communist utopia on Mars, and Steven Levy’s (equally utopian) history of Google, In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works and Lives (Simon & Schuster).

Every summer I try to more or less systematically re-read something of significance to me. Sometimes it is a major work, several works by one author, or some group of books that form some kind of cluster. Recently, I had the pleasure of listening to Kim Stanley Robinson and Jonathan Lethem geek out with one another for an hour or so about their favorite Philip K. Dick works. Inspired, I am making my way back through 6 or 8 key PKD novels in more or less chronological order, starting with The Man in the High Castle (Mariner), then Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (Mariner), Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Del Rey), UBIK (Mariner),  Flow My Tears the Policeman Said (Mariner), A Scanner Darkly (Mariner), and VALIS (as well its little brother and a personal favorite, Radio Free Albemuth, the first PKD novel that I happened to read). There are certainly so many other great ones, but for a refresher, these will suffice to scratch the surface. As a companion I will read Laurence A. Rickels I Think I Am: Philip K. Dickbook of commentary on Dick’s work, I Think I Am: Philip K. Dick (University of Minnesota Press). Rickels is an extraordinarily interesting writer, and a former professor of mine. His other books, dealing with California, vampires, and Nazi psychoanalysis, etc. are also recommended. The Case of California (University of Minnesota Press) in particular makes for excellent beach reading, actually. No joke.

Lastly, I have become interested in issues in and around the philosophy of biology (in a open, non-disciplinary sense) especially as it pertains to fuzzy boundaries between living and non-living matter, strange systems, inhuman time and so forth. Recently I’ve read, or have it planned to read, a handful of titles that may be of interest. Hypersea: Life on Land (Columbia University Press) is a mad book by Mark McMenamin and Dianna McMenamin that starts with the question, why is a greater diversity of life on land than in the sea? Their answer is nested parasitism: animals living inside of animals living inside of animals. Life Explained (Yale University Press) by the French Biologist, Michel Morange, is a nice overview of contemporary issues ranging from molecular genetics to astrobiology, and beginning with the fundamental question of what is and is not “life” exactly? I’ve been looking forward to reading Hide and Seek: Camouflage, Photography and the Media of Reconnaissance (Zone Books) by Hanna Rose Shell, for some time. As the title suggests, it develops a theory of camouflage from evolutionary biology to aerial warfare. Lastly, I picked up a well-loved copy of the 1987 book by Steven Jay Gould, Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle: Myth and Metaphor in the Discovery of Geological Time (Harvard University Press). It discusses how, through geological science in the 17th through 19th centuries, it became possible to think the “Deep Time” of the Earth: billions of years, not thousands.

(P.S.- for those with a strong constitution and an oblique sense of humor, you may want to grind through Agenda 21 (Threshold Editions), the novelization of America’s eco-totalitarian future, ghost-written for Glenn Beck. I often find that that the paranoid Right imagines a political Left that is much more interesting that the Left that actually exits. In Beck’s world the Left is programmatically coherent, stealthy, and dominant. FEMA camps for climate criminals? If only!).

Lily Brewer

During school months I build monuments of books to the Summer Break gods, do a frustrated rain dance of tears around them for spring semester’s end, then begin my reading tribute to myself after a year of finished school work. Thus commences the happy dismantling of the towers three or more at a time. I’ve grabbed a few and put them here.

China Mieville is always begrudgingly on my summer list, even though Un Lun Dun, The City & the City, and Perdido Street Station (Del Rey), as grunge-ily elaborate and adventurous as they may be, fall flat at the critical moment. Despite our tenuous relationship I can’t get away from China and will be finishing Embassytown, Lesabendio(an absolutely brilliant, linguistically twisted story, but I hate the protagonist so badly and don’t care what happens to her). Railsea is also on my list, and I’m optimistic with my bout with these newer additions to his fantastical and other-worldly repertoire. Another SF pick, Lesabéndio: An Asteroid Novel (Wakefield Press), by Paul Scheerbart is the first German Expressionist utopian Science Fiction novel from 1913, (perhaps the only one?). An oblong and elastic inhabitant of a planet in a binary star system, Lesabéndio is a happy relationship between technology and nature. And the characters move around like bouncy balls. Walter Benjamin recommends it. My last fictive pick is Cloud Atlas (Random House) because David Mitchell was in desperate need of vindication. Without going into detail of how miserable the movie made me for three hours, and even though I picked this one up out of frustration and pity, so far I’m impressed (and relieved) with Mitchell’s inspired, paradoxically parallel and interwoven threads through space and time. (This opus deserves another post entirely.)

I always forget I’m a student of history, so I’ll also be spending much of my time in Howard Zinn’s captivating and, alas, so far depressing A People’s History of the United States (Harper Perennial), for which my 11th grade American History teacher John Irish would be ecstatic, along with I Bernard Cohen’s Science and the Founding Fathers: Science in the Political Thought of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams & James Madison (W. W. Norton & Company). Both books detail the pushed-under-the-rug histories of the U. S. that allow my roguish self think of my studies in art and design history under a darker, scandalous light. Walter Isaacson’s Einstein: His Life and Universe (Simon & Schuster) I hope, will complement like colors my interest in the history and philosophy of science along with these, as well as Linda Henderson’s newly republished The Fourth Dimension and Non-Euclidean Geometry in Modern Art (The MIT Press), the latter for which I’m particularly stoked.

I’ve almost finished The Code Book: The Science of Secrecy from Ancient Egypt to Quantum Cryptography by Simon Singh (Anchor). According to Singh, “Codebreakers are linguistic alchemists,” from Mary Queen of Scots to the Navajo code talkers to quantum computers. With this summer’s special edition of Scientific American, “Extreme Physics: Probing the Mysteries of the Cosmos” (with heroes such as Steven Hawking, David Deutch, and the baddest boy on black holes and String Theory, Leonard Susskind) and Deutsch’s article on Constructor Theory, I’m pretty optimistic I’ll have a great historical and quantum-ly foundation for when I return to art school in the fall. I’m comfortable in the contrast.

Howard Rheingold

Big DataVictor Mayer-Schoenberger and Kenneth Cukier, Big Data: A Revolution That Will Tansform How We Live, Work, and Think (Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt): Yes, the title sounds like a concatenation of buzzwords, but both the subject matter and style of writing are compelling: The ability to collect ALL the data about phenomena, made possible by sensors and extensive computation power, rather than sampling data the way scientists have done thus far, is making it possible to know things that we couldn’t know before, and to approach the idea of knowing the world in new ways. When Google crunched billions of searches against 450 MILLION algorithms, they came up with Flu Trends, which can predict influenza outbreaks weeks before the Center for Disease Control. It’s not just about selling things, dataveillance (don’t forget that the NSA is building a million square foot server farm to look for patterns in trillions of phone calls, text messages, emails), or predicting epidemics. It’s a new way of studying the world.

Mark Amerika

More than ever, this summer my reading will be endlessly contaminated by my writing and vice versa. What I mean is that I am finishing two books, or not books per se, although they will end up looking like books, but two long performance art works that disguise themselves as books, even though they are really durational achievements.

The first book constructs a fictional narrative around Marcel Duchamp’s Green Box featuring imaginary characters who go by the names Walter Whitman Benjamin and Virginia Wolff. It’s hard to explain, but you can be sure that I have to read a lot of material about Duchamp’s Large Glass a.k.a. The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even. Honestly, it’s my pleasure.

Locus SolusThe second book is my remix of an auto-translation of Raymond Roussel’s Locus Solus (Alma Books). This means I will read-write the French-to-English auto-translation of Roussel’s novel that I conduct myself by employing mediocre online tools. The end result is already looking like a very mangled version of Roussel’s original book since I will not be reading any sanctioned (verifiable, legit, published) English translation and do not read, write, or otherwise comprehend any texts written in the French language. Having said that, I will be reading, rereading, writing and rewriting Roussel through Duchamp’s Green Box. This ongoing read-write process is what I mean by the term remixology (the subject of my last book, remixthebook).

Will there be time for any other reading? Last year, my friends published so many wonderful books that I could not get to those books written by relative strangers. This year I’ll try to get to take hold of those that I let go last year because I did not have the time as well as a few others that have since popped into view: possible contenders include Sheila Heti’s How Should A Person Be? (Picador), Claire Donato’s Burial (Tarpaulin Sky Press), Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers (Scribner), Vanessa Place’s Boycott (Ugly Duckling Presse), and Lidia Yuknavitch’s Dora: A Headcase (Hawthorne Books).

I’ll also finish two excellent art history books: Branden Joseph’s Beyond the Dream Syndicate: Tony Conrad and the Arts after Cage (Zone Books) and Judith Rodenbeck’s Radical Prototypes: Allen Kaprow and the Invention of Happenings (The MIT Press). These latter two titles are meant to trigger new thoughts about what it would be like to develop a new Graduate arts program in collaborative / experimental / experiential / emerging / inter / media art practices. I would like to find a way to integrate expanded and electronic forms of writing into this program as well and imagine it will even include a PhD component.

As you can imagine, my reading list changes, daily. For instance, ten minutes ago another book just came to my attention and may have to wait but I really hope to get to it by September 21st: Pay for Your Pleasures: Mike Kelley, Paul McCarthy, Raymond Pettibon (University of Chicago Press), by Cary Levine. And three minutes ago, I received an email from Ulises Mejias inviting me to read his just-released Off the Network: Disrupting the Digital World (University of Minnesota Press). Quickly scrolling through the online version, I can see that I will take him up on his offer.

Will I also have enough time to start dipping my nose into Bruno Latour’s An Inquiry Into Modes of Existence (Harvard University Press)?

And I haven’t even touched upon on all of the other pdfs I have loaded on my iPad.

Bradford Vivian

I will be using the summer to gain momentum on a new research project about time and politics, so I’m reading David Ewing Duncan’s The Calendar: The 5000-year Struggle to Align the Clock and Heavens—and What Happened to the Missing Ten Days (Fourth Estate) as a broad background text.  Duncan chronicles the profound difficulty to establish a reliable clock throughout the (mainly) Western tradition, from the dawn of so-called civilization forward.  His account shows the repeated ways that forms of authority (kings, religions, early democratic or republican governments) invested themselves in the use of time as a means of ordering human society and consolidating power in the process.

Architectures of TimeSanford Kwinter’s Architectures of Time: Toward a Theory of the Event in Modernist Culture (The MIT Press) focuses on questions of time as a central formative component of modernity.  Kwinter draws heavily from Nietzsche, Bergson, and Deleuze and Guattari (who are likely the prime lens through which he accesses the former two figures) to argue that all the various, and at times contradictory versions of Western modernity, find common roots in efforts to radically rethink time not as a stable backdrop against which events occur but, rather, as the productive force through which phenomena come into being and exist in their continual becoming.

In addition to these and other books on time and its many manifestations, I will attempt to tackle Cormac McCarthy’s novel Suttree (Vintage). After first encountering his work in The Road, I have gradually been working my way through his corpus from first to last.  I find McCarthy’s prose stunning for its highly disciplined economy of pacing, precise but still haunting descriptive powers, uncannily vivid dialogue, and distinctive capacity to suggest the contours of an intimate psychological world through external, worldly details.

Dominic Pettman

Summer means novels. Lots and lots of novels.

Once more unto the beach!

Ross MacDonald, The Blue Hammer (Vintage): I really enjoy MacDonald’s mid-century California-noir atmospherics, and try to read at least one title of his a year.

Charles McCarry, The Miernik Dossier (Gerald Duckworth & Co.): I’ve only just discovered McCarry, but apparently this is considered by many to be the best Cold War era thriller by an American.

Charles Willeford, The Shark-Infested Custard (Vintage): Pure pulp, apparently in the most flagrant and unironic way possible.

The FlamethrowersGerald Murnane, Barley Patch (Dalkey Archive): A recent and well-received title by one of Australia’s most interesting and elusive writers.

Anna Kavan, Ice (Peter Owen): I don’t know much about this, except the author is an under-appreciated modernist, and the minimal title beckons me.

Rachel Kushner, The Flamethrowers (Scribner): Clearly the buzz-book of the Summer, highly recommended by several people I trust.

Shirley Hazzard, Transit of Venus (Penguin): I’m ashamed to have snoozed on this one for so long.

Kawamata Chiaki, Death Sentences (University of Minnesota Press): Translated by the brilliant Renaissance man, Thomas LaMarre, by a schoolchum of the guy who made the Ringu series, and working off a similar premise.

In terms of theory and/or non-fiction:

Siddhartha Deb, The Beautiful and the Damned (Faber & Faber): An award-winning portrait of modern India by one of my colleagues.

Margret Grebowicz, Why Internet Porn Matters (Stanford University Press): Well, don’t you want to know? Margret will no doubt bring a far more nuanced and critical eye to all those pink pixels flowing through the modemsphere.

Carla Nappi, The Monkey and the Inkpot (Harvard University Press): I saw Carla present a creative piece inspired by her research at the New Museum a few months ago, and now her book on “natural history and its transformations in modern China” is high on my list.

How to Wreck a Nice BeachRoland Barthes, How to Live Together (Columbia University Press): If anyone can respond to such a self-imposed title, it’s RB.

Dave Tompkins, How to Wreck a Nice Beach: The Vocoder from WWII to Hip Hop (Stop Smiling): I read a short piece by Tompkins which was so good that I instantly bought his book.

I will also be catching up with recent issues of Cabinet magazine (subscribe, if you don’t already!).

Plus pretty much everything put out by Univocal Publishing.

My project for the whole year, extending beyond Summer, is Giacomo Leopardi’s epic Zibaldone (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), finally being published in English in its entirety mid-July.

Jussi Parikka

My summer reading is going to be sporadic, but hopefully I get to attend to some texts that have been on my radar.

One certain is Rosi Braidotti’s The Posthuman (Polity). She is just fantastic in her affective energy as well as a pioneer of new materialism. Compared to her, the more recent discussions of the nonhuman are really latecomers. The new book promises some good chapters on death as well as on the future (and non-future?) of humanities.

24/7Besides Braidotti, I will definitely check out another one of my idols, Jonathan Crary’s, new book, 24/7: Terminal Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (Verso). Crary’s Suspensions of Perception (MIT Press) was my go-to book for a long time, and finally there is some new writing out from him. For me, someone who has had sleeping problems the past year, the topic is perfect. And he ties it with the increasing colonialization of our most private spheres by capitalism, so even more perfect.

If and when time, there is a bunch of German media theory waiting to be read. It includes two new hefty volumes from Wolfgang Ernst on time-criticality (Chronopoetik and Gleichursprünglichkeit, both from Kulturverlag Kadmos).

As well as Till Heilmann’s book on computers as text machines, a sort of a media archaeology: Textverarbeitung. Eine Mediengeschichte des Computers als Schreibmaschine (2012) . I have been slowly reading novels again and should one day finish Paolo Bacigalupi’s fantastic The Windup Girl (Night Shade Books) and pick up some Richard Powers I think (at least I was recommended to).

Matthew Kirschenbaum

My summer reading plans are as ambitious as anyone’s and cluster around media archaeology, military affairs, and game history. While there are a whole lot more university press titles in the stack now I suppose the basic mix hasn’t changed all that much since I was fourteen, making bad interactive fiction on my Apple II and listening to Rush albums while reading Tom Clancy and the Monster Manual. (Yes, I was that kid.)

Right now I’m finishing Robert Bolaño’s Third Reich (Picador), his posthumously published first novel recently serialized in The Paris Review. The title comes from the Avalon Hill tabletop simulation game, Decline and Fall of the Third Reich; the novel’s protagonist, Udo, sets this game up obsessively as he vacations at a beach resort on the Costa Brava (is the whole setting a sand table?), playing out his relationship with his girlfriend and brooding on history (his own, Europe’s), spinning scenarios (both ludic and life-altering), and baking his reptilian brainstem in the heat-soaked setting. It is an oppressive strong novel and will not be to everyone’s taste, though it offers a rare extended fictional portrayal of an old school hex and counter game (Bolaño himself was an improbable aficionado of the genre).

Speculate This!I will also be making time for Speculate This!, the enigmatic new e-book from Duke University Press attributed to the otherwise anonymous collective who call themselves “uncertain commons.” (A note in the text glosses the membership as “a group of scholars, mediaphiles, and activists who explore the possibilities of collaborative intellectual labor.”) “The future has been sold,” the first screen reads. “Parceled, bundled, and securitized.” This! becomes a site of affect and resistance. It may in fact find some odd if inverse kinship with the Bolaño, focused as it is on futurity rather than historicity and forms of scenario-making less about prediction and perfection than the creative calculus of difference.

Media archaeology encompasses a loose constellation of scholars and theorists, many of them non-American, that grounds its excavations of media history in strange loops, weird machines, and code forks not followed, with a heavy dose of techno-fetishism and Foucauldian obsession for the archive. Texts I would place in this category from my pile include Finn Brunton’s Spam: A Shadow History of the Internet (MIT Press), Cornelia Vismann’s Files: Law and Media Technology (Stanford University Press), Ben Kafka’s The Demon of Writing: Powers and Failures of Paper Work (Zone Books; notice a trend here?), and Goto80’s Computer Rooms, (lulu) which is a print-on-demand photo documentary of “what computer culture really looks like.” Media archaeologists like it gritty, and so one final item is a David A. Mindell’s older monograph Between Human and Machine (Johns Hopkins University Press), which examines the history of pre-cybernetic feedback mechanisms and analog computing through the lens of naval gun control and automated fire direction, a nexus of topics newly relevant in the face of drone technology once again raising questions about human actors, non-human systems, and the protocols of war.

Speaking of which, I am about halfway through Mark Mazzetti’s The Way of the Knife (Penguin), a well-sourced look at the 21st century’s most significant development in American war-fighting strategy, the tactical The Way of the Knifeconjoining of the Central Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command in the wake of 9/11. This is the deep military (and defense policy) history behind the drone wars, as well as the now-routine global deployments of “black” units like the much mythologized SEAL Team Six.

Other reading may include Matt Jockers’ Macroanalysis (University of Illinois Press) and Ann Blair’s Too Much to Know (Yale University Press), The latter is the deep historical study James Gleick’s much-hyped The Information (Vintage) could never be, and although it’s now been out for several years I am overdue for some time with it. I am also looking forward to Roger Whitson and Jason Whittaker’s Blake and the Digital Humanities, a Routledge hardcover with a price-point set by Urizen.

I have both of Ken Wark’s volumes on the Situationists on deck, The Beach Underneath the Street and the latest, The Spectacle of Disintegration (Verso). Guy Debord, by the way, was himself a player of games, and designed a “war game”—Kriegsspiel—that would have done Bolaño’s protagonist proud. Jon Peterson’s Playing at the World: A History of Simulating Wars, People, and Fantastic Adventures From Chess to Role Playing Games (Unreason Press) is a self-published 700-page tome that very much treats its subject, tabletop gaming, as media—by which I mean material instruments for focalizing and amplifying abstractions—offering up the most carefully researched, loving, and impeccably documented history of Dungeons of Dragons we are surely ever going to see. It’s a book that publishers presumably wouldn’t touch, a simultaneously indulgent and authoritative book our world would be a dimmer place without.

Finally, my ongoing research on the literary history of word processing has introduced me to Len Deighton, whose 1970 novel Bomber (Sterling) is likely the first novel ever written on a machine that qualifies as such. Deighton was famous for his brutal yet urbane Cold War espionage thrillers—neither Ian Fleming nor John le Carré —and I’d like to get to some of them. Spy Story (HarperCollins) features a clandestine computer center dedicated to simulating the next world war, one move at a time. After Mazzetti’s contemporary spy stories, this reads now as pure nostalgia for an obsolete end-game.

David Silver

Most of my summertime reading will come straight from whatever’s on the coffee table — a New Yorker article, some section of the Sunday Times, a cookbook or two from the public library.

Few, if any, of the books I will read this summer will contain footnotes.

Most of the books I will read this summer will be gardening and cookbooks which I don’t really read but rather strategically strike: grab, look up, consult, skim, and scan.

The book I hope to read, start to finish and from every which way, is Deborah Madison’s Vegetable Literacy (Ten Speed Press).

Most likely, the only books I will begin and actually finish this summer will be children’s books — read to and with Siena. I will find these books browsing the kids section of my local public library (Berkeley Public – Claremont Branch), reading the children’s column of the Sunday Times‘ book review section, and searching through the database of the Jane Addams Children’s Book Awards.

During summer, as well as fall, winter, and spring, these books are always read socially.

David and Siena

Gareth Branwyn

Kevin Evans, Carrie Galbraith, John Law, Tales of the SF Cacophony Society (Last Gasp): A group of San Francisco artists, creatives, and lovable malcontents in search of “experiences beyond the pale” – that was the M.O. of the SF Cacophony Society, begun in 1986 and active ’til the turn of the century. Tales… chronicles their many adventures in urban exploration, elaborate costume events, the birth of Burning Man, and more. May this book spawn new generations of urban absurdists and culture jammers.

Lauren Beukes, The Shining Girls: A Novel (Mulholland Books): I met Lauren at last year’s Comic-Con and was mortified to admit that I hadn’t read any of her well-regarded novels. I’ve since become something of a fanboy and am looking forward to reading her latest, The Shining Girls, this summer. This genre-bender is about… you’ll never guess… a time-traveling serial killer. Lauren seems to be one of those authors who exfoliates more creativity than most of us have to begin with.

Richard Kadrey, Kill City Blues/The Sandman Slim novels (Harper Voyager): In Kadrey’s Sandman Slim series, he repeatedly sends us and the main character, James Stark (aka Sandman Slim), to hell and back again. Back being LA. Four books in and it’s hard to decide which locale is worse. In fact, by book four, Kill City Blues, they basically overlap. And it’s this psychogeography of the series, its mash-up of the familiar and the occult, and it’s relentlessly violent, always clever and cocky narrative, that make it stand far above other darlings of the genre like Jim Butcher.

Hard Art DC 1979Lucian Perkins, Alec MacKaye, Hard Art, DC 1979 (Akashic Books): The pictures in this lovely book, by well-known DC photographer Lucian Perkins, perfectly evoke the unique magic of its time and place – the DC punk scene of 1979. Bands like Trenchmouth, Teen Idles,  Slickee Boys, and the incomparable Bad Brains, played shows in sketchy galleries, squat-clubs, and even inner city housing projects, where punks (frequently in all-white bands) played for all-black audiences unsure of what they were standing in front of. An urgent narrative by Alec MacKaye (Untouchables) and an essay by Henry Rollins provide a backstory to these potent images.

R. U. Sirius Timothy Leary’s Trip Thru Time (Futique Trust): In this timeline-formatted book and free ebook, 90s countercultural iconoclast R. U. Sirius paints probably the most accurate picture to date of 60s counterculture iconoclast Tim Leary. People seem quick to love him or hate him, but best of luck just trying to find Timothy Leary, the actual man entangled in the myth. Like the mercurial Aleister Crowley before him (the early 20th century occultist whom he greatly admired and emulated), Leary seems to be all of the great and terrible things said about him, and none of them. Trip Thru Time is a fine attempt at teasing out the truth behind this (anti)hero of the 20th century.

Peter Lunenfeld

Now that I’ve passed the half-century mark, I was thinking that this summer I might revisit my high school English syllabus, including The Great Gatsby (Scribner), 1984 (Plume), Brave New World (Harper Perennial), and Victory (Double Day) to see how and if they and I have held up. Continuing on with fiction, I’ve already read James Salter’s All That Is (Vintage) and Mohsin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Asia (Penguin; which are oddly similar in their attention to men making it, albeit in different eras and places), so for the summer I’ll move on to fiction of and by Angelenos. These include native son and Industry scion Matthew Spektor’s epic about Hollywood, American Dream Machine (Little Brown); East German Christa Wolf’s (that’s how she identifies herself) dyspeptic City of Angels: Or, the Overcoat of Dr. Freud (Farrar, Straus and Giroux); Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers (Scribner), which though about the New York and Italian art worlds of the 1970s is written by an Angelina; and Summer of Hate, partially set in Southern California, by Chris Kraus. n.b. Kraus’s seminal LA intellectual tell-(not)-all-(but some) I Love Dick (Semiotext(e)) has been invoked a lot lately in relation to internet alt-lit demi-celebrity Marie Calloway’s blog-post-a-clef/short story “Adrien Brody.”

Veering away from fiction, this summer I’m hoping to engage more fully with the amazing publishing program The Inner Life of Video Sphof Geert Lovink’s Institute of Network Cultures (all of which are available as print-on-demand books and pamphlets or as free .pdfs from the site). I’m particularly interested in going through the Un-Like Us Reader, and the two Video Vortex readers. The first is on social media, the others on YouTube and online video. I read Andreas Treske’s pamphlet, The Inner Life of Video Spheres, an expansion of his Video Vortex work, and it’s prompted me to finally sit down and tackle Peter Sloterdijk’s Bubbles: Spheres Volume I: Microspherology (Semiotext(e); pithy titles are obviously not big in German media philosophy at the moment).  Pithier to be sure, and reissued and updated after more than two decades, is the second edition of Brenda Laurel’s groundbreaking Computers as Theatre (Addison-Wesley; with the added bonus of an awesome new cover designed by Martin Venezky).

Speaking of design, I’ll be re-reading The Electric Information Age Book: McLuhan/Agel/Fiore and the Experimental Paperback by Jeffrey Schnapp and Adam Michaels (Princeton Architectural Press). Jeffrey sent me a pre-release .pdf of the book when he and I were working on Digital_Humanities (The MIT Press), but I want to revisit it in print. I won’t be reading so much as browsing Artur Beifuss and Francesco Trivini Bellini’s Branding Terror: The Logotypes and Iconography of Insurgent Groups and Terrorist Organizations (Merrell Publishers). I hope the mere possession of this book doesn’t put me on NSA and TSA watch lists, but if I do get stopped by airport security this summer, I’ll make sure to have a copy of David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King (Back Bay) with me, because I read DFW so slowly and with such pleasure.

Patrick David Barber

About a year ago I read Dave Eggers’ A Hologram for the King (Vintage) start to finish on one lovely day at a campsite in Tillamook National Forest. The book is quintessentially Eggers and also a great summer read: engaging and fast-moving but with enough dark undertones to keep it interesting and relevant.

Last weekend we camped for Solstice and I brought along Edward Lee’s new cookbook Smoke & Pickles (Artisan). I don’t usually think to bring a cookbook for campsite reading, but this was a perfect choice. Lee writes appealingly of his interest in food and of the intersecting influences that brought him to where he is today: a Korean-American New Yorker, running a restaurant in Kentucky that manages to bring all of that together. I’ve yet to try any of these recipes, but, hey, you had me at “Korean-Southern fusion.” Of particular note are the four seasonal kimchi recipes, the variety of rice bowls, and the bourbon-pickled jalapeños.

Edward Lee book in action. (photo by Patrick David Barber)

Alex Burns

Jeff Madrick Age of Greed: The Triumph of Finance and the Decline of America, 1970 to the Present (Vintage): Madrick is editor of Challenge magazine, a contributor to The New York Review of Books, and a senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and the Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis, The New School. His detailed reportage examines how corporate and regulatory battles created new economic and political elites. Age of Greed spans Walter Wriston’s revolt as CEO of First National City bank to Angelo Mozilo’s demise as CEO of Countrywide Financial. There are new, devastating details about the AOL Time Warner merger negotiations; the Ivan Boesky and Michael Milken cases; Alan Greenspan’s Federal Reserve; and fiscal, monetary and regulatory policy in the Carter and Reagan administrations. I liked Age of Greed so much that I bought hardback, paperback, and Kindle copies to study Madrick’s writing style more closely.

Mary S. Morgan The World In The Model: How Economists Work and Think (Cambridge University Press): Morgan is Professor of history and the philosophy of economics at the London School of Economics and the University of Amsterdam. She provides a detailed conceptual history of key theoretical economists, including David Ricardo, John Maynard Keynes, John Nash, and Max Weber. This is a book about how to think about model-building and simulation; what models do and don’t do; how models are used; and under what conditions models can fail. Gillian Tett’s reportage in Fool’s Gold (Little, Brown) provides an example of how J.P. Morgan became a market-maker for credit default swaps and other financial engineering which contributed to the 2007-09 global financial crisis.

Machine LearningPeter Flach Machine Learning: The Art and Science of Algorithms that Make Sense of Data (Cambridge University Press): Flach is editor-in-chief of the Machine Learning journal and is a Professor of artificial intelligence at the University of Bristol, United Kingdom. This is an accessible introduction to machine learning: “the systematic study of algorithms and systems that improve their knowledge or performance with experience” (p. 3) such as email spam filters. Topics include binary classification; concept learning; tree, rule, and probabilistic models; and model ensembles. Flach uses equations and illustrations to explain the major concepts involved. For more advanced research, I recommend David Barber’s Bayesian Reasoning and Machine Learning (Cambridge University Press) and Kevin P. Murphy’s Machine Learning: A Probabilistic Perspective (The MIT Press).

Barry Johnson Algorithmic Trading & DMA: An Introduction to Direct Access Trading Strategies (4Myeloma Press): Charles Duhigg broke the news about high-frequency trading (HFT) systems in a New York Times article on 24th July 2009. Then the Flash Crash happened at 2:45pm on 6th May 2010. Since then, there is a mini-industry of HFT-oriented topical books (both pro and con); and publisher updates to pre-HFT titles on algorithmic trading. Johnson’s self-published book is a detailed introduction (for institutional investors and HFT system developers) that requires a working knowledge of market microstructure (orders and price structure) and quantitative finance. He alludes to trading strategies yet discusses the equally important transaction and execution costs. For a HFT and algo history, see Scott Patterson’s Dark Pools (Crown Business). For a basic, accessible overview of alpha, risk, portfolio, transaction and execution systems see the revised edition of Rishi K. Narang’s Inside The Black Box (John Wiley & Sons). Publishers have a slate of new HFT and algo books out later this year, starting with Robert Kissell’s The Science of Algorithmic Trading and Portfolio Management (Academic Press). You will have to do further work to understand the major asset classes and trading strategies like mean reversion, momentum, trend-following, volatility, distressed debt, and event arbitrage.

Alan N. Fish Knowledge Automation: How to Implement Decision Management in Business Processes (John Wiley & Sons): James Altucher, Sal Arnuk, Jaron Lanier, Evgeny Morozov, Joseph Saluzzi, Charles Hugh Smith, Kanye West, and others agree: The internet is hollowing out the middle class. Norbert Wiener foresaw this outcome with The Human Use of Human Beings (1950) on cybernetics and robotics. Fish combines three areas—decision management (predictive analytics and business rules); business process management systems (activity sequences); and service-oriented architecture (loosely coupled, reusable software services)—to explain how to automate many business functions, or to alter organizational decision structures. It should give you some tools to self-disrupt your current job if you need to—and stay ahead of the reengineering curve. The savings and scalability involved often flow to Chrystia Freeland’s Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else (Penguin).

Memory MachinesBelinda Barnet Memory Machines: The Evolution of Hypertext (Anthem Press): Barnett is a colleague and lecturer at Swinburne University, Australia. Memory Machines will probably be the definitive conceptual history of hypertext, and the influence of Vannevar Bush’s Memex, Doug Engelbart’s NLS, Ted Nelson’s Xanadu, and Andries Van Dam’s File Retrieval and Editing System on the internet’s evolution. Barnett combines a rich, scholarly understanding of the historical literature and interviews. She provides background on Nelson’s philosophy that will interest readers of Jaron Lanier’s recent Who Owns The Future? (Penguin), which also explores Nelson’s insights.

Don Webb Overthrowing the Old Gods: Aleister Crowley and the Book of the Law (Inner Traditions). There have been a flurry of new and thoughtful books about the English magus Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) and his aeonic word Thelema (Will). Webb provides a trans-aeonic interpretation of Crowley’s Liber Al vel Legis (1904) and its influence on contemporary occulture. Readers will learn from Webb’s Egyptological and Classical research, and the self-change insights from his extensive magical/initiatory work. For a contemporary, psychological view of Thelema see Roy F. Baumeister’s research program on self-regulation and ego-depletion, summarized in Baumeister and John Tierney’s Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength (Penguin).

Michael A. Aquino MindWar (CreateSpace): The Aquino/Vallely concept paper “From PSYOP to MindWar: The Psychology of Victory” (1980) had a much-debated reputation amongst far right New World Order conspiracy theorists, before Vallely became a CNN commentator during the 2003 Iraq War. Aquino provides a corrective in this self-published book to conspiracy-driven disinformation. He articulates a ParaPolitics meta-ethical philosophy influenced by Plato’s noesis and Club of Rome philosopher Raghavan Iyer’s Parapolitics: Toward the City of Man (Oxford University Press). He goes beyond the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act and Military Information Support Operations to articulate a different approach to military force structure and joint coordination: PhysWar (Combat), MindWar (Psychological Operations), MetaForce (Special Operations), and ParaPolitics (Civil Affairs). He provides a glimpse of a personal research program involving experimental psychology. For the appropriate context to understand Aquino’s MindWar and what it responds to, see Martin van Creveld’s The Culture of War (Ballantine Books); the revised edition of William C. Martel’s Victory In War: Foundations of Modern Military Policy (Cambridge University Press); and, as one comparative view to Iyer/Aquino’s ParaPolitics, Johan Galtung’s TRANSCEND method in peace studies. On the potential “ethics of use,” I also suggest you consider the relevant ethical and research program guidelines from the American Psychological Association (particularly Divisions 3, 6, 19, and 56); the Experimental Psychology Society; the Society of Experimental Social Psychology; and the International Society of Political Psychology.

The Roots of EvilJohn Kekes The Roots of Evil (Cornell University Press): Kekes is Professor Emeritus of philosophy at the University of Albany. He considers moral, political and theological dimensions of evil, and then evaluates possible causal factors (internal and external conditions). Case studies include the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars; the French Terror of 1793-94; Franz Stangl the Kommandant of the Treblinka concentration camp in Nazi Germany; Charles Manson; Argentina’s Dirty War of 1976-83; and the psychopath John Allen. Kekes then evaluates four different explanations: external-passive, external-active, internal-passive, and internal-active. This is a subtle, nuanced book on moral philosophy that deserves re-reading and mindful reflection.

Neil Fligstein and Doug McAdam A Theory of Fields (Oxford University Press): Fligstein is a Professor of sociology at University of California, Berkeley. McAdam is a Professor of sociology at Stanford University. This book develops a conceptual model of Strategic Action Fields as a mesolevel construct in which different actors collectively shape and change societies. Fligstein and McAdam contrast microfoundation and macrofoundation insights; consider methodological aspects; and provide two case studies: United States debates about race (1932-1980) and the mortgage securitization industry (1969-2011). This book exemplifies how to present new conceptual frameworks and theory-building for an academic audience.

Roy Christopher

Steve Aylett recently sent me a pile of new stuff I’ve been itching to get into: Smithereens, Novahead, and Rebel at the End of Time (Scar Garden Press). Reading Aylett is like reading a videogame in a blender, so I’m anxious to see how these three play, but there are a few ahead of them:

Gene Youngblood, Expanded Cinema (Dutton): I’ve had this book for ages and read it years ago. I’m revisiting it this summer because I found a clean copy of it recently, and it’s just so weirdly prescient. Published in 1970 (now available online), Expanded Cinema discusses the extensions of humans through the evolution of cinematic language. Youngblood writes of the “global intermedia network” and image-riddled “post-mass audience age.” Bucky Fuller wrote the Introduction, but it could just as easily have been written by Marshall McLuhan, Jean Baudrillard, or Paul Virilio. Youngblood is somewhere among them, even if a bit more sober. Couple this book with Anthony Wilden’s widely overlooked 1972 book, System and Structure (which I mentioned on last year’s list), and you’ve got a whole new set of ways to see the possible present(s).

ViralityTony D. Sampson, Virality: Contagion Theory in the Age of Networks (University of Minnesota Press): Reevaluating the work of old theorists in light of new developments (much like I suggest with Youngblood and Wilden above) is often fertile ground for new seeds of thought. Sampson does this in Virality with the work of French sociologist Gabriel Tarde, and Gilles Deleuze‘s interpretation thereof. The tack can have its limitations though, and I’m anxious to see which way Sampson’s book leans.

I finally read Bruce Sterling‘s The Hacker Crackdown (Bantam), as well as his storm-hacking novel from the same era, Heavy Weather (Bantam), as a part of a short reading list of hacker-themed books I’m either finally reading or re-reading. Something about Sterling’s recent talk on fantasy prototypes and “real” disruption crossed with a mild interest in criminology (from sporadic classes during my undergraduate studies and watching glorified cop shows like Veronica Mars and Lie to Me) spurred a renewed interest in hacking. I’m reading Steven Levy’s Hackers (O’Reilly) right now alongside Katie Hafner and John Markoff’s Cyberpunk (Simon & Schuster) and Parmy Olson’s We Are Anonymous (Back Bay). Then I’m rereading Ken Wark’s A Hacker Manifesto (Harvard University Press) to reestablish the larger, philosophical context.

Speaking of Ken Wark, I have two new ones by him that I’ve barely started. Telesthesia: Communication, Culture and Class (Polity) and The Spectacle of Disintegration (Verso) continue his adept analysis of the media milieu and what Guy Debord and the Situationists can still teach us about it. I’m hoping to cover these soon.

I also just finished Daniel Suarez’s latest novel, Kill Decision (Signet), which Paul Saffo mentioned on last year’s list. Its autonomous-drone tale is germane and terrifying. Oh, and if you haven’t read his previous two novels (Daemon and its sequel, Freedom), you should add them to your list. Theirs is an amazing, scary story with lots of crazy already-existing technology.

What are you reading this summer?

Shift Happens: Power to the Pedals

Those disgruntled with our current “technopoly,” as Neil Postman famously called it, often argue for returning to a simpler time. This is, of course, impossible, as even their visions of simpler times include technology. For example, in The Nature of Technology (Free Press, 2009), Brian Arthur envisions a world where all of our modern technologies disappear, yet we’d still be left with some. He writes, “We would still have watermills, and foundries, and oxcarts; and course linens, and hooded cloaks, and sophisticated techniques for building cathedrals. But we would once again be medieval” (p. 10). As ludicrous as such an argument appears, I would like to return to a time that never happened, an alternate universe where bicycles dominated the roads, as well as the construction and spread thereof. I’m not alone in this fantasy. Many of us take to the streets on two wheels instead of four, and movements like Critical Mass try to take them over completely on a regular basis.

Critical Mass Chicago, 2007.

The freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is… one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights.
— David Harvey

For the uninitiated, Critical Mass is a monthly ride aimed at taking back the streets from cars, demonstrating the presence of bicycles, and reminding everyone that they’re on the road, too. The event is known for blocking thoroughfares, pissing off motorists, and regular arrests. Shift Happens: Critical Mass at 20 (Full Enjoyment, 2012), edited by Chris Carlsson, LisaRuth Elliott, and Adriana Camarena, is a twenty-year, global retrospective of the trials and triumphs of Critical Mass. It’s a monthly revolution that will start its third decade this week. The scope of these essays is as global as the movement, from Budapest to Berkeley and Paris to Ponce, and its birthplace in San Francisco, as well as from my beloved Portland to my current Chicago.

Strangely, the recent economic downturn might be a great opportunity. Sustainability, public transport, and bike lanes aren’t scoffed at anymore. — David Byrne, Bicycle Diaries

For a look at the social forces that created the bicycle as opposed to the ones it has created, it gets no better than The Social Construction of Technological Systems: New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology (The MIT Press, 2012), edited by by Wiebe E. Bijker, Thomas P. Hughes, and Trevor Pinch. I first encountered this volume — and its use of the bicycle as an astute example of technological change (in Pinch and Bijker’s essay “The Social Construction of Facts and Artifacts: Or How the Sociology of Science and the Sociology of Technology Might Benefit Each Other”) — in Andrew Feenberg‘s “Philosophy of Technology” class at San Diego State. It has since been treated to a much-deserved anniversary edition (the original version hit shelves in 1987). This collection established the approach of the social construction of technology (SCOT) as a viable methodology, and it’s not all about bicycles: eighteenth-century cooking stoves, twentieth-century missile systems, and thirteenth-century galleys get their due. The aforementioned chapter on the social construction of bicycles is still my favorite though.

Also, Bijker’s own Of Bicycles, Bakelites, and Bulbs: Toward a Theory of Sociotechnical Change (The MIT Press, 1997) is another interesting set of explorations and applications of this approach to these themes.

The mere fact of riding a bicycle is not in itself sinful, and if it is the only means of reaching the church on a Sunday, it may be excusable. — 1885 reply to a letter from a young lady

If you’re looking for more focus on the bike itself, rather than its urban and sociological implications, there’s Bicycling Science (The MIT Press, 2004), by David Gordon Wilson, which is now on its third edition (its original having come out in 1982). This book has everything to do with human-powered wheeled vehicles — bicycles in the broadest sense of the term: from the general (e.g., basic concepts of human power, the history of the bicycle, etc.) to the specific (e.g., physics, aerodynamics, bearings, materials, braking, steering, etc.), and the weird and the future of bicycles. If you’re looking for the mechanical minutia of bicycles, Bicycling Science is likely to be the only book you need.

I’m admittedly biased, but I think the bicycle is one of the greatest inventions in the history of technology. I’ve been riding one since the age of four, and they’ve been my primary means of transportation for the past fifteen years. If you don’t ride a bike regularly, give it one shot. Bicycles are fun, and that one ride might be the door to a whole new world. These three books go a long way to covering both the history of that world and its implications in the twenty-first century. On the eve of the twentieth anniversary of Critical Mass, do yourself a favor, and, in the words of Mike Daily, ride first, read later.

References:

Arthur, Brian. (2009). The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves. New York: Free Press.

Bijker, Wiebe E. (1997). Of Bicycles, Bakelites, and Bulbs: Toward a Theory of Sociotechnical Change. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Bijker, Wiebe E. , Hughes, Thomas P., & Pinch, Trevor. (2012). The Social Construction of Technological Systems: New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Byrne, David. (2009). Bicycle Diaries. New York: Viking.

Carlsson, Chris, Elliott, LisaRuth, & Camarena, Adriana (eds.). (2012). Shift Happens: Critical Mass at 20. San Francisco: Full Enjoyment.

Harvey, David. (2008, September/October). The Right to the City. New Left Review, 53.

Wilson, David Gordon. (2004). Bicycling Science. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Woodforde, J. (1970). The Story of the Bicycle. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

 

Revealing Poetry: The Art of Erasure

Maybe it’s apt that I don’t remember, but I somehow came across Tom Phillips‘ “treated Victorian novel,” A Humument (Tetrad Press, 1970), nearly a decade ago at San Diego State University. Phillips took William Mallock’s A Human Document (Cassell Publishing, 1892) and obscured words on every page, leaving a few here and there to tell a new story. It’s part painting, part drawing, part collage, part poetic cut-up, and all weirdly, intriguingly unique (You can view full pages from the book at its website).

Phillips claims that he picked A Human Document because of its price-point (“no more than three pence,” he said), but Mallock’s “novel” is oddly suited for Phillips’ repurposing. The original novel is a scrapbook of sorts of journal entries, correspondence, and other ephemera left behind by two deceased lovers. Mallock wrote of these scraps in his introduction that “as they stand they are not a story in any literary sense; though they enable us, or rather force us, to construct one out of them for ourselves” (p. 8). N. Katherine Hayles (2002) characterizes this introduction as “uncannily anticipating contemporary descriptions of hypertext narrative” (p. 78).

Tom Phillips is not the only nor the first to do such a work. According to Wikipedia,

Several contemporary writer/artists have used this form to good effect. Doris Cross appears to have been among the earliest to utilize this technique, beginning in 1965 with her “Dictionary Columns” book art. d.a. levy also worked in this mode at about the same time. Ronald Johnson’s Radi Os is a long poem deconstructed from the text of Milton’s Paradise Lost. Tom Phillips’ A Humument is a major work of book art and found poetry deconstructed from a Victorian novel. Similarly, Jesse Glass’ Mans Wows (1981), is a series of poems and performance pieces mined from John George Hohman’s book of charms and healings Pow Wows, or The Long Lost Friend. Jen Bervin’s Nets is an erasure of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Janet Holmes’s The ms of my kin (2009) erases the poems of Emily Dickinson written in 1861-62, the first few years of the Civil War, to discuss the more contemporary Iraq War.

@shaviro At St Marks bookstore. Realized that I no longer fetishize books as objects in the slightest (which I used to do). Prefer etexts now. (Tweeted August 24th, 2012)

The move to digital texts, which is gaining more and more zeal by the day, has put the not only the fetishization of books as objects in jeopardy but also seemingly the want or need for them at all. It’s not that repurposed books are a last-gasp marketing ploy by the publishing industry—like pretty CD packages with bonus DVDs or 3D movies are—but that there is a reason to fetishize them. As Jonathan Safran Foer (see below) put it, “When a book remembers, we remember. It reminds you that you have a body. So many of the things we may think of as burdensome are actually the things that make us more human.”

Books are only metaphors of the body. — Michel de Certeau

With that said, Austin Kleon stole like an artist and created a best-seller using only markers and copies of The New York Times. His Newspaper Blackout (Harper Perennial, 2010) takes Tom Phillips’ methodology to its basic tenet: poetry as erasure.

“How to Learn About Girls” from Newspaper Blackout.

Taking a step up instead of down, Jonathan Safran Foer opted for literal subtraction, creating a textual sculpture. Foer treated his favorite novel, The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz (Penguin, 1963), by cutting out words, creating Tree of Codes (Visual Editions, 2010).

The book as conceptual art: Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes.

Giving due credit to his forebears, Foer told The New York Times, “It was hardly an original idea: it’s a technique that has, in different ways, been practiced for as long as there has been writing — perhaps most brilliantly by Tom Phillips in his magnum opus, A Humument. But I was more interested in subtracting than adding, and also in creating a book with a three-dimensional life. On the brink of the end of paper, I was attracted to the idea of a book that can’t forget it has a body.” Foer also acknowledges the project’s constraints as well as the power of his source material, adding,

Working on this book was extraordinarily difficult. Unlike novel writing, which is the quintessence of freedom, here I had my hands tightly bound. Of course 100 people would have come up with 100 different books using this same process of carving, but every choice I made was dependent on a choice Schulz had made. On top of which, so many of Schulz’s sentences feel elemental, unbreakdownable. And his writing is so unbelievably good, so much better than anything that could conceivably be done with it, that my first instinct was always to leave it alone.

For about a year I also had a printed manuscript of The Street of Crocodiles with me, along with a highlighter and a red pen. The story of Tree of Codes is continuous across pages, but I approached the project one page at a time: looking for promising words or phrases (they’re all promising), trying to involve and connect what had become my characters. My first several drafts read more like concrete poetry, and I hated them.

As opposed to the anyone-can-do-it tack of Kleon, Foer took the tools and text at hand and made something truly new. Like A Humument before it, Tree of Codes is a unique object worthy of thoughtful consideration. As DJ Scratch once said, “The reason we respect something as an art is because it’s hard as fuck to do.” Taking elements of others’ work and making it your own is one thing. Taking the whole damn thing and completely transforming it into something else is art.

——–

Here’s the making-of video for Tree of Codes [runtime: 3:34]:

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References:

de Certeau, Michel. (1984). The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Foer, Jonathan Safran. (2010). Tree of Codes. London: Visual Editions.

Hayles, N. Katherine. (2002). Writing Machines. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Heller, Steven. (2010, November 24). “Jonathan Safran Foer’s Book as Art Object.” The New York Times.

Kleon, Austin. (2010). Newspaper Blackout. New York: Harper Perennial.

Mallock, William. (1892). A Human Document. New York: Cassell Publishing.

Phillips, Tom. (1970). A Humument. London: Tetrad Press.

Wagner, Heather. (2010, November 10). “Jonathan Safran Foer Talks Tree of Codes and Conceptual Art”. VF Daily.