Sky High, Skin Deep: dark technologies of mediation

Theory Beyond the Codes

Sky High, Skin Deep

dark technologies of mediation

Dark Mediation

Media has become responsive architecture. Intelligent media artefacts are now embedded into the very fabric of our existence; they have become the structure of society itself. Ubiquitous computing creates informational environments in which material structures of communication become alive with agency. McLuhan’s light bulb is now everyware: [1] technology that mediates by its mere presence. Pervasive mediation, a combination of mobile networks and systems of material translation such as 3D printers and programmable matter—is our current regime of mediation.

Satellite technologies are the heart of mobile media, and therefore we are saturated with media analyses that look up to the sky in order to map trajectories of communication. Notwithstanding, this vision-centric approach to pervasive media does not encompass the full spectrum of media technologies. Beyond the boundaries of such regimes of visibility lies a new regime of dark mediation. Belonging to a different level of materiality, nanotechnologies enable a dark, object-oriented mediation which evades visual representation, for nano-mediation is becoming indistinguishable from nano-engineering.

Inasmuch as contemporary culture is shifting towards material culture, represented by what Neri Oxman has called a “material ecology of mediated matter,” [2] it nevertheless remains centred around screens. Hypermediation as a concept was developed in relation to interactive screen culture, when the “hyper” properties of the digital (links, layers, multitasking) opened new pathways to conceptualising media. [3] The mediation implied in Bolter and Grusin’s concept of hypermediation is image-based. Visual culture today is itself a product of the “hyper” visibility of digital mediation.

What I propose in this article is a theoretical approach to processes of mediation that are not visual. I address unattainable and invisible processes of technological mediation in which mediation itself becomes, parallel to the overabounding surrounding excess of visual percepts, a form of inaccessibility that in its totality becomes unfathomable. Such understanding of mediation goes against simplistic notions that reduce its meaning to “that which makes communication accessible.”

Not every instance of mediation can be easily accessed in a world of pervasive media. Dark technologies of media, which range from drone-mediated to nano-mediated networks, lead to partial and absolute degrees of inaccessibility. Pervasive media produces two different realms of non-access: informational and physical. Parallel to the informational obscurancies of dark data and drone-mediated surveillance, weird tales are told about the physical inaccessibility that is a property of nano levels of mediated matter. Dark mediation belongs to science-fact just as it belongs to science fiction. It pertains, simultaneously, to the combined material ecologies of culture, technology, and nature. Pervading data systems and matter itself, our dark technologies of mediation are hidden in plain sight.

Dark mediation presupposes different degrees of inaccessibility. It is, therefore, mediation that leads to partial or absolute noncommunication. This inaccessibility can belong to the realm of disappearance, [4] in which we find the forbidden, the hidden, the forgotten—or it can belong to the absolute, the ethereal, the ontological. The materiality of media technologies and their technological dust are not only causing a lack of breath [5]—they are also creating a curtain of fog that obfuscates mediation.

Pervasive media produces informational and physical levels of inaccessibility. The first level, characterised by dark networks, can be mapped high in the sky by the Drone Shadows it creates, mentioned here in reference to James Bridle’s critical artistic work. [6] In the second level, characterised by invisible and absolute mediation that pervades multiple dimensions of matter, we can find interesting kinds of Weird Tales, named in reference to Eugene Thacker’s mention of the classic horror magazine to illustrate his proposition of a weird supernatural that

seems to be as immanent as our media are—distributed, ubiquitous, in the “cloud” and enveloping us in its invisible, ethereal bath of information and noise. The function of media is no longer to render the inaccessible accessible, or to connect what is separate. Instead, media reveal inaccessibility in and of itself—they make accessible the inaccessible—in its inaccessibility. [7]

Drone shadows are cast upon the virtual elusiveness of content buried in the “Invisible Web,” [8] restricted by cryptography and network security, lost within scattered pockets of dark data, [9] captured by untraceable satellite surveillance [10] or by undercover military drones. [11] Simultaneously, weird tales are told about the physical inaccessibility of nano levels of material programming, molecular communication, [12] quantum computing and media [13]—mediation which goes as deep into the core of matter as quantum physics itself, and that can only be accessed indirectly via data mining. Dark mediation is not restricted to our media imaginarium. It belongs, simultaneously, to the combined material ecologies of technology and nature. Pervading data fields and matter itself, dark mediation is all around us.

Drone Shadows

If we understand what is public in terms of collective access, then what is private would be determined in terms of its inaccessibility. In drone technologies there is a double-logic of inaccessibility: at the same time in which drones are blurring the distinction between public and private space, between geographical boundaries of overseas warfare and domestic surveillance, they are also making accountability harder due to the very nature of drone operations, which are mostly covert. Secret drone policies are carried out by military institutions worldwide. Jeremy Scahill’s documentary Dirty Wars uncovers such secret operations conducted by American Navy Seals, Delta Force, and the CIA’s Special Activities Division, among other agencies. Invisibility and obfuscation are institutional directives:

The political and practical possibilities of drone strikes are the consequence of invisible, distancing technologies, and a technologically disengaged media and society. Foreign wars and foreign bodies have always counted for less, but the technology that was supposed to bring us closer together is used to obscure and obfuscate. We use military technologies like GPS and Kinect for work and play; they continue to be used militarily to maim and kill, ever further away and ever less visibly. [14]

The commercial, military, and private appropriations of drone technologies are making evident how “the corporeal politics of space, place and identity are powerfully inflected by technological systems of remote surveillance and violence.” [15] As these systems of remote surveillance become ever more imperceptible—hidden within embedded circuits all around us, flying above the clouds while tracking down our digital footprints—they are becoming a part of the very infrastructure of public and private space, in a way that leaves little room for any differentiation between the two. This overlapping of private and public space comes as a consequence of the way “people trade privacy for functionality.… Public space, we are often told, ‘needs’ surveillance technologies to ensure a range of functions from the safety of citizens to efficient services for consumers.” [16] Domestic use of drones also raises privacy issues, when unregulated aerial filming of private property and land is becoming the norm in urban areas all over the globe.

Traditional surveillance metaphors depicting big brother cameras might become obsolete on the grounds that surveillance is in the process of operating materially instead of visually. Surveillance devices can be embedded on the very physical surfaces of objects and even on biological tissues. A new regime of surveillance arises—one that is invisible to the eye and that goes beyond vision into the very core of information systems unclad. An illustrative example is the application of nanotechnologies to the field of drone development. Privacy infringements expand exponentially: operations that were already obscure might now become completely invisible. It is no coincidence that the American military is the world’s leading organisation investing in research and development of nano-technological drone applications.

Aerovironment’s Switchblade UAV/smart bomb (called the micro-drone)—as small as a large bullet and able to explode on target—is being used by the military as both a surveillance device and a weapon. [17] Commercial and private uses of nano-drones are already taking place—for example, the Nano-Quadrotors developed by GRASP Lab2 from University of Pennsylvania, which are very small and capable of performing swarm movements. Even smaller nano-drones are being designed using Smart Dust, autonomous micro-sensor nodes connected to mobile networks:

The millimeter-scale nodes, called smart dust, explore the limits on size and power consumption in autonomous sensor nodes. Size reduction is paramount in making the nodes inexpensive and easy to deploy. Smart dust incorporates the requisite sensing, communication, and computing hardware, along with a power supply, in a volume of no more than a few cubic millimeters. [18]

Smart dust represents to dark technology what digital swarming represents to the web: a disruption that makes collective behaviour ever more unpredictable. The doubled logic of in/accessibility present in drone-mediations becomes more complex when both kinds of swarms, virtual and material, begin to interpenetrate in intricate ways. Take Bebop, for example: Bebop is a drone that can be operated by Oculus Rift. [19] It provides immersion, not into virtual reality, but into (drone-mediated) physical reality. Categories are hard to maintain these days. When swarming gets physical, its implications are dark:

As the swarm becomes real before our eyes, the Lovecraftian horror becomes more Orwellian—or perhaps it is the other way around? As our gadgets get smaller, such horrors seems less like fantasy and more like … what? “Real-life?” Nanomachines, flying robots, botnets, and AI. The genre status switches between blockbuster and headline on a weekly basis. It’s all a little too real. It’s all a little too much. And that surplus, caught in the glinting sunlight off cold, gun-metal gray wings, invisible in the sky above, is the Swarm. [20]

Behind the drone-mythos of Rothstein’s narrative, we can find another instance of materiality that is infused with dark mediation and agency: programmable matter. But that is a different kind of weird tale.

Weird Tales

While some remain sceptical about media ubiquity (in the sense that barriers of access and different patterns of adoption imply that ubiquitous media may not be nearly as ubiquitous as it claims to be), [21] others are radical proponents of its limitless possibilities, recounting weird tales of an exquisite appeal. A weird tale of this peculiar kind is Ray Kurzweil’s theory of exponential acceleration of technology as an unavoidable process that will eventually result in a technological singularity. Leaving aside the frail and obscure territory that stands in-between madness and genius, the simple reality of pervasive mediation is that it can be embedded into all physical systems, be they organic or inorganic, natural or artificial. Pervasive mediation encompasses all forms of mediation, ranging from traditional media to material engineering such as 3D printers, programmable matter, and nanomedia. Limitless mediation happens across biological organisms, physical objects, technological artifacts, molecules, atoms, and bits.

Such radical pervasiveness is possible, in part, thanks to molecular communication, [22] which takes place within systems of biological signal exchange that involve coded messages sent through molecules. Molecules can travel across all material systems, and are used scientifically as a form of nanomedia. While digital media functions within an electronic environment, nanomedia often operate within chemical environments. Digital media flows via electronic pulses, frequencies, fiber-optics, and air, while hybrid nanomedia (organic/inorganic systems of nano-communication) typically operate via chemical reactions within liquid environments. [23]

Flows of mediation that were once restricted to digital data circuits can now circulate through matter itself, allowing matter to be [re]programmed. Programmable matter is made of pervasive processes of dark mediation, which are responsible for the ensemble of material affordances present in various technologies such as cellular automata, [24] self-replicating machines, [25] claytronics, and ferrofluids. [26]

Regardless of the absence of a clear distinction between science-fact and science fiction when it comes to mapping the full extent of technological processes of mediation, the tale of our media now being a giant mesh that expands from our pockets into the sky, from the sky into the fiber-optic cables buried deep at the bottom of the sea, and from there to nanogadgets that might swim under our skins, is not so very weird. All of these instances of material programmability refer to embodiments that are informational at their origins and that carry signs which are translated into material properties and shapes. Mediated matter (re)produces objects.

Programmable matter is not only a power of creation—it can also be an invisible, dark power of effacement, for whatever can be programmed can be just as easily deprogrammed. Everything that can be used to integrate and assemble can disintegrate and dismantle as well. A significant example is Ero, a robot who “erases” buildings by recycling their concrete [27]—a superstrong water jet dismantles particles while they get sorted by intelligent suction machines which then separate its components for further use.

Matter can now be manipulated and erased just as easily as a graphic designer can handle the eraser tool in Photoshop to fix a drawing. The unbearable lightness of matter is already quite funky, but the weird tales can get a lot funkier. Scientists are promising to turn light itself into matter, by constructing a pure photon-photon collider, a device that could create matter from light. [28] Science-fact and science fiction collide once again.

Wookieepedia, the Star Wars wiki, defines hypermatter as being made of faster-than-light particles used as fuel in interstellar transportation. [29] Borrowing this inspiration, we could assign new meaning to the term and speculatively redefine hypermatter as mediated matter in which nonlinear properties of mediation are material rather than informational. Hypermatter represents to matter what hypermedia represents to media: a jump into multidimensionality that transforms mediation itself and could lead to radical immediacy. Yet another weird tale is born: the science-factual story of hypermatter as a visible surface of dark mediation.

Hypermatter

Dark technologies challenge the fundamental elements and categories of mediation: internal and external, message and channel, origin and reception. The medium is indeed the message—embodied and material—and this message is transduction. Info-material transduction is the mechanism behind mediated matter, one that allows for an object-oriented understanding of media ubiquity itself.

Regardless of being information-based or material-based, dark technologies are pushing the boundaries of media theory. Dark data, pervasive media and the possibility of capturing and disseminating information across multiple and invisible devices makes of anyone, anywhere, a potential and simultaneous subject and object of surveillance. The unavoidable popularisation of drones will have the same consequences. From high in the sky to under our skin, dark networks of mediated matter would mean that panoptic and scoptic modes of surveillance could merge into one single realm of hypersurveillance, one that is material rather than visual.

At their fullest, dark processes of pervasive mediation would make communication an impossibility, be it because of barriers to access or because medium and message are united to an extent that one continuously morphs into the other. Such radical continuum of hypermediation would result in absolute mediation, which in turn cannot be communicated. Hypermediation that leads to absolute mediation is infinite and mathematical in its multidimensionality, [30] transcending mediation and becoming excommunication. [31]

Some might argue that dark mediation would be equivalent to a reversed form of immediacy. However, this is not case, for the experience of immediacy remains a possibility in dark mediation as in remediation; total accessibility might collapse into total inaccessibility just as matter, in extreme cosmological conditions, can collapse into dark matter. A naked immediacy would then be as visible as a naked singularity: infinite density of matter equivalent to infinite density of mediation.

Acknowledgments

Many thanks to Scott McQuire for discussing these ideas with me.

Notes

[1] Adam Greenfield, Everyware: The Dawning Age Of Ubiquitous Computing (Berkeley: New Riders, 2006).

[2] Neri Oxman, “Towards a Material Ecology,” Paper presented at the 32nd Annual Conference of the Association for Computer Aided Design in Architecture (ACADIA), San Francisco, October 2012, http://neri.media.mit.edu/publications/article/towards-a-material-ecology (accessed on June 30, 2014).

[3] Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin, Remediation: Understanding New Media (Boston: MIT Press, 2000).

[4] The disappearance I am referring to here makes a counterpoint to Paul Virilio’s “aesthetics of disappearance,” which is based on a human consciousness eviscerated by a shared reality of visual excess. Jean Baudrillard’s “art of disappearance” is also based on human consciousness: his black-hole of non-differentiation is in itself a social perception of reality. Rather, the disappearance inherent in the dark mediation I describe here is not dependent on a shared or social experience. It is characterized, on the opposite, by absence of access to experience. Although it would certainly be fascinating to apply Virilio’s concept of accident to the technologies presented here, or to interpret them as Baudrillard’s hyperreal nebula, in which the medium and the real implode upon one another, for the purposes of this essay I will focus on exploring material realms of disappearance, which are grounded in the deployment of technological artifacts and mediated matter.

[5] Jussi Parikka, “Dust and Exhaustion: The Labor of Media Materialism.” CTheory tbc055 (October 2, 2013), http://ctheory.net/ctheory_wp/articles.aspx?id=726 (accessed on June 30, 2014).

[6] James Bridle, “Under The Shadow of the Drone” Booktwo.org (October 11, 2012), http://booktwo.org/notebook/drone-shadows/ (accessed on June 30, 2014).

[7] Eugene Thacker, “Dark Media,” in Alexander Galloway, Eugene Thacker, and McKenzie Wark, Excommunication: Three Inquiries in Media and Mediation, 95–96 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2014).

[8] Chris Sherman and Gary Price, The Invisible Web (New Jersey: Information Today, 2007).

[9] P. Bryan Heidorn, “Shedding Light on the Dark Data in the Long Tail of Science,” Library Trends 57.2 (2008).

[10] Jiejun Kong, “Anonymous and Untraceable Communications in Mobile Wireless Networks,” PhD thesis (University of California, Los Angeles, July 2004).

[11] Tyler Wall and Torin Monahan, “Surveillance and Violence from Afar: The Politics of Drones and Liminal Security-Scapes,” Theoretical Criminology 15 (2011), 239–54.

[12] Tatsuya Suda, Michael Moore, Tadashi Nakano, Ryota Egashira and Akihiro Enomoto, “Exploratory Research on Molecular Communication between Nanomachines,” Genetic and Evolutionary Computation Conference (GECCO), Late Breaking Papers, June 2005, http://www.cecs.uci.edu/conference_proceedings/gecco_2005/suda_gecco05.pdf (accessed on June 30, 2014).

[13] David Deutsch, “It from Qubit,” Science & Ultimate Reality, John Barrow, Paul Davies, Charles Harper, eds. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

[14] James Bridle, “Dronestagram: The Drone’s-Eye View,” Booktwo.org (November 8, 2012), http://booktwo.org/notebook/dronestagram-drones-eye-view/ (accessed on June 30, 2014).

[15] Wall and Monahan, ibid.

[16] Scott McQuire, Meredith Martin, and Sabine Niederer, eds., Urban Screens Reader (Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures, 2009).

[17] John Reed, “Army Buying Kamikaze Drones” Defensetech.org (September 8, 2011), http://defensetech.org/2011/09/08/army-buying-kamikaze-micro-drones/ (accessed on June 30, 2014).

[18] Anna Hac, Wireless Sensor Network Designs (West Sussex: Wiley, 2003).

[19] Karissa Bell, “Parrot Introduces Oculus Rift-Enabled Drone,” Mashable (May 11, 2014), http://mashable.com/2014/05/11/parrot-bebop-drone/ (accessed on June 30, 2014).

[20] Adam Rothstein, “Drone Ethnography,” Rhizome (July 20, 2011), http://rhizome.org/editorial/2011/jul/20/drone-ethnography/ (accessed on June 30, 2014).

[21] Maria Åkesson and Carina Ihlström Eriksson, “The Vision of Ubiquitous Media Services: How Close Are We?,” in Human Interface and the Management of Information: Interacting in Information Environments, Michael J. Smith and Gavriel Salvendy, eds., Lecture Notes in Computer Science 4558 (2007), 222–32.

[22] Suda, Moore, et. al., ibid.

[23] The area of nano communication networks is growing steadily, as can be seen by the creation of Nano Communication Networks Journal, an academic journal dedicated entirely to the study of this field (see http://www.journals.elsevier.com/nano-communication-networks/).

[24] Tommaso Toffoli and Norman Margolus, “Programmable Matter: Concepts and Realization,” Physica D: Nonlinear Phenomena 47.1–2 (January 1, 1991), 263–72.

[25] Robert Freitas and Ralph C. Merkle, Kinematic Self-Replicating Machines (Georgetown, Texas: Landes Bioscience, 2004).

[26] David Andelman and Ronald Rosensweig, “The Phenomenology of Modulated Phases: From Magnetic Solids and Fluids to Organic Films and Polymers,” in Yoav Tsori and Ullrich Steiner, Polymers, Liquids and Colloids in Electric Fields: Interfacial Instabilities, Orientation and Phase Transitions (Singapore: World Scientific, 2009), 1–56.

[27] Lidija Grozdanic, “Amazing ERO Concrete-Recycling Robot Can Erase Entire Buildings,” Inhabitat Magazine (June 19, 2014) http://inhabitat.com/amazing-ero-concrete-recycling-robot-can-erase-entire-buildings/ (accessed on June 30, 2014).

[28] O.J. Pike, F. Mackenroth, E.G. Hill, S.J. Rose, “A Photon–Photon Collider in a Vacuum Hohlraum,” Nature Photonics 8 (2014), http://www.nature.com/nphoton/journal/v8/n6/full/nphoton.2014.95.html (accessed on June 30, 2014).

[29] “Hypermatter,” Wookieepedia: The Star Wars Wiki, http://starwars.wikia.com/wiki/Hypermatter (accessed on June 30, 2014).

[30] Ted Nelson, “No More Teachers’ Dirty Looks,” Computer Decisions 9.8 (September 1970), 16–23.

[31] Galloway, Thacker and Wark, Excommunication.

Dr. Renata Lemos Morais is a Lecturer in Media and Communication at Deakin University. Her research is transdisciplinary, integrating culture, science, art, and technology. She is a member of Space Collective.