Critical Technical Practices

Forum Organized by Phoebe Sengers
German National Computer Science Research Center, Germany
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Abstract: Traditionally, technology development is thought of as separated from its criticism. But the separation between critical practices and technical practices has never been absolute. And now, the illusory remains of a strict culture-technology professional divide are disappearing with the development of a growing community of researchers involved in what Philip Agre calls critical technical practices. These are practices of technology-building that incorporate critical perspectives of the kind that is more usually associated with artists or cultural critics.

Such practices involve fundamental changes in the way we think about doing computer science, focussing more on social and political ramifications of technology than on utility, efficiency, and optimality. At the same time, researchers involved in critical technical practices move beyond pure criticism, with a deep investment in the material practice of designing and building new technical works, and, often, the commitment to communicating with purely technical workers in a language they can understand.

Examples of this kind of work include Simon Penny's robotic artwork, Petit Mal, which is constructed to elicit attributions of a wide variety of intelligent behavior, using a body with complex dynamics and a minimum of 'brains'; Terminal Time, Michael Mateas's collaboration with Paul Vanouse and Steffi Dolmike, which constructs ideologically-biased documentaries on the basis of audience input; and Warren Sack's Conversation Maps, which automatically tracks the narratives generated by a netnews group, offering a way to think about large-scale conversations of the future.

The goal of this forum is to bring together, perhaps for the first time, leading researchers in critical technical practices to discuss the possibilities, the challenges, and the difficulties of doing work at the cutting edge of criticism and computer science; in short, to outline the future form of this interdiscipline.

Panel participants:

Simon Penny: When one mentions the uses and functions of art in a scientific context, the understanding is often of superficial manipulation of visual `aesthetic' characteristics in the pursuit of `beauty' or a cool-looking demo. A more sophisticated approach recognises that the holistic and open ended experimental process of artistic practice allows for expansive inventive thinking, which can usefully be harnessed to technical problem solving. This approach tacitly recognises that certain types of artistic problem solving compensate for the `tunnel vision' characteristic of certain types of scientific and technical practice.

Warren Sack: Even the technical details of the new media mechanisms we are discussing today are political. It's politics all the down. Even the most trivial of details can have significant political legacies and large political repercussions. For example, who is to say that ubiquitous computer science heuristics, like the one called "divide and conquer," do not betray the military genealogy of computer science? I argue that technical details are not unimportant details.

Phoebe Sengers: My approach to research could be called a hermeneutics of AI: I use critical theory to question assumptions inherent in current computational systems, then use that analysis to generate novel technology. Practicing AI from a critical theory perspective means frequently running into walls of misunderstanding. I used to think we needed a revolution. Now I realize it has already happened. What we now need is to build a community.

Noah Wardrip-Fruin: The Impermanence Agent is a storyteller. The Impermanence Agent is a browser window. As you move over the Web, the Impermanence Agent tells its story, offers advice, makes observations. The Agent knows that the dream of hypermedia, of eternal life, is only that. While some map cyberspace to hide it, the Agent mourns our 404 Not Founds with us.

About the Presenters:

Phoebe Sengers Research scientist, Media Arts Research Studies, German National Computer Science Research Center (GMD). I graduated in '98 from CMU with a self-defined interdisciplinary Ph.D. in Artificial Intelligence and Cultural Theory. In '98-99, I was a Fulbright Guest Professor at the Center for Art and Media Technology (ZKM) in Karlsruhe, Germany.

Simon Penny is an Australian artist, theorist and teacher in the field of Interactive Media Art. His art practice consists of interactive and robotic installations. Penny is Associate Professor of Art and Robotics at Carnegie Mellon University. He established the Electronic Intermedia Program at the University of Florida 1990-93, curated Machine Culture (arguably the first international survey exhibition of interactive art) at SIGGRAPH '93 in Anaheim CA.

Warren Sack is a software designer and media theorist who has recently completed his Ph.D. at the MIT Media Laboratory. He has a B.A. in Computer Science and Psychology from Yale University and worked there in the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory for 3 years. After Yale, he studied philosophy and artificial intelligence for a year at the University of Paris VIII, Vincennes at St. Denis followed by three years in Santa Cruz, California co-organizing a cultural studies of science and technology working group.

Noah Wardrip-Fruin is alternatively Research Scientist and Artist-in-Residence at the NYU Media Research Laboratory and Center for Advanced Technology. He is a writer and copious generator of hypertext fiction. He is also involved in the Art and Culture section of SigGraph. His system, the Impermanence Agent (SigGraph '99, DAC'99), is a fully functional parody of agent technology.