Speculative Surveillance with Ring™ Log

Over the weekend I launched Ring™ Log, which is simultaneously a critique of surveillance culture and a parody of machine vision in suburbia. In the interactive artist statement I call Ring™ Log an experiment in speculative surveillance.

Animated GIF of Ring Log in Action

“Speculative” in this context means what if?

What if Amazon’s Ring™ doorbell cams began integrating AI-powered object detection in order to identify, catalog, and report what the cameras “see” as they passively await for friends, neighbors, and strangers alike to visit your home? This is the question Ring™ Log asks. And, given the season (I write this on October 29, 2019), what would the cameras see and report on Halloween, when many of the figures that appear on your front stoop defy categorization?

I dive into the technical details and my inspirations in the artist statement, so no need to repeat myself here. I will add that I was very much inspired by an old Twilight Zone episode, even including several Easter Eggs to that effect. I was also inspired by the ridiculous posts I see on NextDoor, where paranoid neighbors routinely share Ring™ videos of “suspicious” visitors to their houses. Finally, I’m in debt to Everest Pipkin, whose work “What if Jupiter had turned into a Star” provided some of the underlying JavaScript effects for Ring™ Log. Everest’s work, like my own, appears with a permissive copyright license that allows for the reuse and modification of the code. Wouldn’t it be awesome if creative coders borrowed from Jupiter and Ring™ Log and made their own adaptations of these works, similar to what happened with Nick Montfort’s Taroko Gorge?

(Yeah, that’s a hint about what my students will be doing in my Electronic Literature course next semester!)

Amazon.com ending Amazon Associates Program for North Carolina

Amazon.com sent me a message this morning, announcing that the company is has “little choice but to end its relationships with North Carolina-based Associates” because of an “unconstitutional tax collection scheme” due to be passed by the North Carolina General Assembly. Not that I make any significant amount of money from my referrals to Amazon, but this is still disappointing news. Here’s the full text of Amazon’s announcement:

We regret to inform you that the North Carolina state legislature (the General Assembly) appears ready to enact an unconstitutional tax collection scheme that would leave Amazon.com little choice but to end its relationships with North Carolina-based Associates. You are receiving this e-mail because our records indicate that you are an Amazon Associate and resident of North Carolina.Please note that this is not an immediate termination notice and you are still a valued participant in the Associates Program. All referral fees earned on qualified traffic will continue to be paid as planned.

But because the new law is drafted to go into effect once enacted – which could happen in the next two weeks – we will have to terminate the participation of all North Carolina residents in the Amazon Associates program on or before that same day. After the termination day, we will no longer pay any referral fees for customers referred to Amazon.com or Endless.com nor will we accept new applications for the Associates program from North Carolina residents.

The unfortunate consequences of this legislation on North Carolina residents like you were explained in detail to key senators and representatives in Raleigh, including the leadership of the Senate, House, and both chambers’ finance committees. Other states, including Maryland, Minnesota, and Tennessee, considered nearly identical schemes, but rejected these proposals largely because of the adverse impact on their states’ residents.

The North Carolina General Assembly’s website is http://www.ncleg.net/, and additional information may be obtained from the Performance Marketing Alliance at http://www.performancemarketingalliance.com/.

We thank you for being part of the Amazon Associates program, and we will apprise you of the General Assembly’s action on this matter.



So much for that graphic novel Amazon store I had just set up last night for my class this fall.

Fantastic writing in reviews of milk on amazon

Via Dennis Jerz via Boing Boing, word of hundreds of fake reviews for a real product on Amazon, a gallon of Tuscan whole milk.

Jerz imagines quite rightly that the novelty of ordering milk from an online bookstore is the impetus for these entertaining reviews, which range in style from poetic to surreal. Many of the reviews are laugh-out-loud funny. The astonishing thing is that not only are the reviews extremely clever, but that they are extraordinarily well-written. Most of them choose an approach to the review (say, a reworking of a William Carlos Williams poem, a snooty review for wine, or the persona of an RPG gamer) and stay true to that approach throughout the review. They do not tip their hand or let on that it is a fake review. In this way, the reviews are superbly confident.

This confidence, this sense of purpose is the opposite of what I find in most undergraduate writing. I wonder, then, is there some sort of writing exercise lurking here?

Instinct tells me that writing a fake review is low stakes and the reviewers probably feel less inhibited than they do when writing a real review. The writers allow themselves to be bolder, more daring, and more creative. And I imagine some of the fake reviews were written by people who would never have written a real review.

So, what if I have my students write fake reviews? Professors are so intent on having students write “formal” and “serious” papers because we believe that is how serious literary interpretation comes about. This format obviously stifles creativity, but I’m now realizing that it also hampers a student’s confidence. So, instead of a formal essay with a tidy thesis and satisfying conclusion and five to ten paragraphs in between (which, by the way, never happens), assign students a series of parody reviews, each one to be written in a different “voice” or persona.

For example, one review on Amazon treats the Tuscan whole milk as if it were a translation of an early Italian literary masterpiece. Why not reverse the equation, and have our students write about a book as if it were something else, maybe an iPod or a decoration? Here another review imagines that the milk is a piece of furniture:

Shipping was fine, and the product was not damaged in any way, but my husband and I (both of us have college degrees, mind you, his in Engineering) could not figure out how to assemble this. No instructions, no diagrams, not even a lousy cheap allen wrench. So basically, weeks after purchase, we’re using it as a one gallon paper weight. I haven’t gotten any response from Tuscan. It earns two stars simply because it is heavy and does do a fair job of holding down the stack of newspapers awaiting recycling.

Many of the reviewers demonstrate an acute awareness of how reviews typically work, and they incorporate these formal features into their reviews. Here is one that makes excellent use of the “Spoiler alert” warning often given in book and movie reviews:

Overall, the quality and freshness of this milk was outstanding. The only thing that I found unpleasant was the seemingly acidic nature of it when it came out of my nose.
This milk tends to spoil when left open in a warm place for too long.

As I say, in these and dozens of others of fake reviews, the writers are confident, attune to their context, and in a perverse way, showing a kind of mastery over the subject of their review. You couldn’t ask for more from a piece of writing.

The Amazing Amazon Mechanical Turk

Clive over at Collision Detection reports on the new Amazon service called Amazon Mechanical Turk, which allows companies to hire (via Amazon) “Turks” who, in their spare time, do seemingly mindless tasks online, for example, tag photographs of shoes according to color. The tasks are mindless–but only for humans who have minds. For computers, the tasks are monumental. AI and visual pattern recognition just hasn’t reached this stage yet. Anyone can sign up as a “Turk” and whenever they have a spare moment at their cubicle, click away and earn as much as $30 a day.

What intrigues me most about this service is the name: Amazon Mechanical Turk. This is a nod to a famous 18th century hoax. As Amazon explains:

In 1769, Hungarian nobleman Wolfgang von Kempelen astonished Europe by building a mechanical chess-playing automaton that defeated nearly every opponent it faced. A life-sized wooden mannequin, adorned with a fur-trimmed robe and a turban, Kempelen’s “Turk” was seated behind a cabinet and toured Europe confounding such brilliant challengers as Benjamin Franklin and Napoleon Bonaparte. To persuade skeptical audiences, Kempelen would slide open the cabinet’s doors to reveal the intricate set of gears, cogs and springs that powered his invention. He convinced them that he had built a machine that made decisions using artificial intelligence. What they did not know was the secret behind the Mechanical Turk: a human chess master cleverly concealed inside.

I had heard of this story before…from the German critic Walter Benjamin. In his “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Benjamin writes:

The story is told of an automaton constructed in such a way that it could play a winning game of chess, answering each move of an opponent with a countermove. A puppet in Turkish attire and with a hookah in its mouth sat before a chessboard placed on a large table. A system of mirrors created the illusion that this table was transparent from all sides. Actually, a little hunchback who was an expert chess player sat inside and guided the puppet’s hand by means of strings.

Benjamin goes on to compare this “automaton” to a certain view of history, which fails to see through the illusions that veil the real mechanisms of power.

I’m no conspiracy theorist and I see no conspiracy here. But I can’t help but gleefully wonder if some coder at Amazon was familiar with this Benjamin passage, and that the name of Amazon’s version of artificial artificial intelligence was inspired by a vision of a Turkish puppet smoking a hookah.

MTO Database from Amazon

I’ll take a break from my travel blogging to mention Applefritter’s astonishing article Data Mining 101: Finding Subversives with Amazon Wishlists.

Individuals’ public Amazon “wishlists” are, collectively, essentially a gigantic aggregate of data, waiting to be mined, and in this post, Tom Owad details how he used the wishlists to track the reading preferences of over a quarter of a million readers. Owad’s point is that the U.S. government can just as easily (but probably not as cheaply!) do the same thing, in order to track down Americans reading subversive material.

Now if only the terrorists would create wishlists at Amazon!

Search Inside This Book

Like many avid readers and scholars I am thoroughly enamored of Amazon.com’s Search Inside the Book feature. The feature debuted October 23, 2003 with the complete text of more than 120,000 books. I can’t find any recent data on how large the digital archive has grown in the past several months, but the folks at Amazon have said they would eventually like to have their entire catalog full-text searchable.

Gary Wolf explores the different dimensions of such a huge undertaking in “The Great Library of Amazonia”, an article in this past December’s Wired. As much as I agree with Wolf (“We want books to be as accessible and searchable as the Web”), there is one aspect of the whole project I find troubling. And that is, who performs the actual labor of digitizing these thousands of books? It sounds counter-intuitive, but publishers must send Amazon a physical copy of every book to be included in the database. And then some person, somewhere, manually turns and scans every page of that book.

There are machines that will automate the scanning process, like the Kirtas APT BookScan 1200, which costs a cool $150,000 and can scan 1,200 pages in one hour. But Wolf reports that Amazon.com has sent shipments of books to India to be scanned by human workers. There, according to a related Wired article, the workers turn pages by hand and make 40 cents an hour.

So, it is an unsettling fact of this global economy that I can search Amazon’s catalog for a book with the phrase “imperialist lackeys and running dogs” and then buy that book for $11.20–an exorbitant sum for that worker in India, about 28 hours’ worth of work. The only consolation is that however little 40 cents an hour is, it is still twice India’s average daily wage. Of course, this speaks more to the inequities of global capitalism than to the generosity of Amazon.com.

UPDATE (23 July 2009)

In the years since I wrote this post, I’ve created a number of assignments that use Amazon’s full-text search feature, such as this writing assignment for Jessica Hagedorn’s Dream Jungle.