Category Archives: Identity

A cell phone for each stage of my life

cellphones

In the summer of 2007, me and my cell phone were thrown into a Spanish swimming pool. We managed to reach the shore, but my cell phone died a few hours later from the damages it had suffered to some of its vital number keys. I was generously provided with exactly the same type of cell phone shortly after, which wasn’t a particularly modern device even back then. By now, it comes across as medieval. But it works. I’m not sure when I’ll purchase a new smart phone, but before I do, I’ll quickly remember some of its predecessors in this post. Continue reading

Advertisements

Che Guevara – What is it about his picture?

che

Right, another quick film review then. We went to see “Chevolution” the other night, a documentary about the famous photograph of Che Guevara. The film does a fairly good job delivering the historic facts about the picture’s origins (it was taken by Alberto “Korda” Diaz in 1960) and how it became the most reproduced photograph of a human being. Unfortunately, some of the people asked to comment on the image’s cultural and political significance are not doing a very good job at that and rather deliver some lofty polemics. Here are some of the deeper insights I distilled from “Chevolution”. Continue reading

Alan and Marvin – When machines talk

I’m a bit behind with my commentary on current news. But that’s okay, I think. Some days or weeks ago, the news was that Gordon Brown had issued an official apology to Alan Turing, a genius computer scientist, who was heavily discriminated against and “treated” for being gay until he committed suicide in 1954. Previously, Turing had helped crack the Germans’ encryption code during World War 2.

The story of how Brown’s apology came about is in itself noteworthy, for it came out of an e-petition on the UK government’s website. I must admit, I didn’t even know such thing existed in this country and I will certainly have a look at how e-petitions work. In this case, more than 30,000 signatures were collected and Alan Turing rightfully received his posthumous apology.

Turing Test of human “intelligence”

I guess Alan Turing was mostly known for his Turing Test. The Turing Test is an assessment of a computer’s ability to mimic human intelligence to such perfection that a human judge can no longer tell the difference between the computer and another human. It’s important to mention that the computer and his human counterpart are placed in separate rooms and they both talk to the human judge via some sort of text-based interface so that voice or handwriting don’t influence the verdict. The human judge can ask all sorts of questions through that interface to figure out who’s human and who’s not.

Every so often, some bright minds actually have a real competition based on the Turing Test. The contestant with the best human-intelligence-mimicking computer wins. Don’t know what though. Probably money and three levels up on the geek scale.

Of course, you may ask, “Wait a minute… you call being able to communicate through some text-based interface ‘intelligence’?” The philosophical debate about this is as old as the Turing Test itself and if you expect an authoritative answer in the next few paragraphs, I’m afraid I must disappoint you.

My humble opinion would be that simply being able to carry a nice conversation through some chat program doesn’t mean the computer in the other room is “intelligent”. Intelligence means relating the words and sentences of the conversation to the situation and the context in which it takes place, to everything that happened before and everything that is likely to happen later, and finally, relating the words and sentences to a “being” (don’t make me define “being”…). The conversation only makes sense when you interpret the words and sentences in relation to the unique “being” who expressed them.

The author JD Peters put forward the argument that Turing reduced intelligence to communication without the presence or interference of human bodies because he (subconsciously) wanted to escape the stigma of being homosexual. He may have hoped for a form of interaction and communication that is not distorted by any human “flaws”.

Speaking of talking machines…

While writing this, I remembered that the science fiction literature has already created a number of intelligent machines or robots that would not only ace the Turing Test but also live up to the standards of intelligence that I tried to describe just now (R2D2, etc.).

My most famous example is Marvin, the paranoid android from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. He’s an incredibly intelligent robot, but he’s also incredibly depressed. Here are just three little quotes…

Marvin: “I am at a rough estimate thirty billion times more intelligent than you. Let me give you an example. Think of a number, any number.”
Zem: “Er, five.”
Marvin: “Wrong. You see?”

“I’d give you advice, but you wouldn’t listen. No one ever does.”

“I think you ought to know I’m feeling very depressed,” Marvin said.

Big Brother and the “people like you and me” genre

bigbrother

When I came to the UK last year, the TV show “Big Brother” was already ailing, it seemed. After ten seasons or so, the country had lost interest in the idea of locking up a bunch of ever more quirky human beings to broadcast their attempts to kill time. As a last outburst – as a Big Brother supernova, if you like – the media had just squeezed every last drop of news value from the death of Jade Goody, the most famous Big Brother candidate in the UK. Last Wednesday, Channel 4 announced that it will discontinue the show in 2010.

It seemed to me that Big Brother passed away rather quietly – no uproar, no vociferous calls for five more seasons, just a few flashbacks to the most unforgettable moments. But Big Brother certainly deserves some credit. If it didn’t invent it, the program definitely popularized the “people like you and me”-genre. It was the epitome of Andy Warhol’s prediction that we shall all enjoy our 15 minutes of fame, in some cases converting these into 15 minutes of shame.

Now, if we say that people got tired of Big Brother, did they also get tired of the “people like you and me” genre? I would love to say that the answer is “yes”. After ten seasons or so, we came to realize that it’s boring to watch other people going about their day-to-day life. In fact, it would be nice to say that we rediscovered how exciting our own lives can be and that we no longer need the distraction of watching locked-up Big Brother candidates.

Unfortunately, there’s only little evidence that we got tired of the “people like you and me” genre. In fact, it appears to me that we got bored with Big Brother because it wasn’t Big Brother enough… if you know what I mean. How cumbersome to put people in a house for three months until they finally perform something worth broadcasting. How constraining that all those moral conventions of regulated mainstream media still apply. Big Brother was only the beginning, not the end, of the 15-minutes-of-fame culture.

The irony of it all is that we have indeed rediscovered how exciting our own lives can be – and how fun it is to share them with everybody out there. Instead of one Big Brother, we now have millions of little brothers all filming and broadcasting themselves. It is easy and tempting to apply a strict moral judgment on this trend; one that condemns the shameless self-promotion and exhibitionism. But it is equally possible to herald Youtube videos as a form of cultural expression and identity-shaping self-representation. I postpone this debate until the next pub visit later.

How Starbucks might kill freelancing – or the other way around

Coffee shops and laptops

Rumor has it that Obama’s inauguration speech was written by his gifted young speech writer at a Starbucks. That may well be the most famous piece of work ever produced in a coffee shop, but it’s by far not the only one. When I think about coffee shops, I think of freelancers. And when I think about freelancers, I think of Starbucks. But how much longer will this happy symbiosis last?

What triggered my worries was a story in the Wall Street Journal the other day (sorry, took me a few days to sit down and write this). Some coffee shops in New York have started to limit the availability of WiFi or restricted the hours in which you can have a laptop on your desk.

The reasons for this backlash aren’t that hard to guess. Tons of people come to coffee shops to have one cup of tea, no sugar, and then spend the rest of their visit working on whatever they’re working on as freelancers. Hence, other people have no place to sit and enjoy their double chocolate muffin and vanilla latte. The recession may have made the situation worse, as some freelancers probably canceled their home broadband connection for good (if not their entire rental agreement). Ironically enough, the same coffee shops that now suffer the burden of too many freelancing, space-wasting customers once invited them in as a nice strategy to attract business.

I’m wondering how it actually happened that freelancing is now so closely associated with coffee shops? Was it coffee shops first and suddenly everyone thought, “Oh, brilliant… let me freelance, now that I can hang out at this coffee shop all day and night”. Or was it freelancers first until one morning over a cup of coffee some business school graduate thought “Oh, brilliant… all those freelancers want to hang out at a coffee shop all day and night”. Hen and egg thingy, I guess.

Now that coffee shops are restricting the use of laptops, will freelancing die? And without freelancing, will coffee shops die? The consequences will probably not be that severe, I must admit. But let me close with some cultural studies snobbery by saying that what we are is what we drink is what we write is what we are… right?!

Dude, where’s my camera?

This morning, I’m happy to post the first contribution by a guest writer on this blog. She previously blogged under the name “Chamique”. Her post is a follow-up to a number of discussions we had about this whole uploading, tagging, de-tagging pictures business on Facebook. This includes not only the obvious issue of self-promotion and reputation management. The real concern is about this obsession of having to document one’s life, every second of it – as if things didn’t happen unless you see them in some Facebook album. Thanks, “Chamique”, for this post!

Create Album

Of late, we’ve been discussing this sudden and constant need to document everything we experience and see. To make others believe we were there. Or maybe to make ourselves believe it sometimes. Was I really lounging around on a beach somewhere just a few weeks ago? My tan and memories might be fading, but all the photographs say yes, this did indeed happen.
I’ve always considered myself to be someone who writes to remember. I’ll make to-do lists just so the list stays in my head. I remember my handwriting on Post Its and journals and lecture notes. I guess my memory is visual. Does that mean my photograph taking is meaningless, given that I’ve already seen what I’m capturing on the lens?

On a recent trip to Oxford, I whipped out my camera and took several pictures of the owner of this ‘blog just because I knew it would piss him off. (I’m controversial like that.) The results were so ridiculous – even by my flimsy standards – that those pictures will remain relegated to a lowly subfolder somewhere on my computer. But I know I can still get a giggle out of looking at them in the near or distant future. If ever I choose to do so. The point is – I am comforted that I have large portions of my life in pictures. Like somehow this knowledge lets me clear up more brain space for all the new things I must learn over the course of my life.

Can I claim copyright over my crazy night?

The better part of my Sunday morning last weekend was spent in the frantic un-tagging of some *ahem* unflattering photographs of myself on Facebook. While I’m unapologetic about the clothes I wear and faces I make at a camera when it’s pointed at me, I do take into consideration that the 600 people that are called ‘friends’ of mine include those whom I do not particularly want to share my momentary lapses of reason with. It must also be pointed out that I seem to have far too much faith in my friends and their taste(lessness). It appears that not many of them are as discerning as my gentle self whilst uploading photographs to the internets. My grandchildren would be horrified. (It ruins the glamourous image I’m trying to build up for myself over the years, you see.)

Then again, all I have of my own grandparents is a selection of elegant black and whites. I haven’t ever seen them sticking out a cheeky tongue during a group photo. Did previous generations live their lives less fully than us now?
At home, we have a charcoal sketch of my grandmother, which guests are quick to comment on. Where’s that from, they’ll ask. And there’s the romantic story of how Ruiz Pipo, a young Parisian artist, approached my stunning grandmother and asked if he might sketch her, right there, on a paper napkin at the café, circa 1954.

Facebook Tag

Cut to Paris, 2009. I, instead, have an album of a hundred or so digital photographs of me making a fool of myself in front of the several places of interest. Have we become so accustomed to the abundance of cameras and recording devices that we allow ourselves to be at ease or even careless when accosted by a lens? Are photographs not sacred anymore?

Things become even more complicated if we entertain stuffy respectable ambitions for ourselves as professionals. The aspiring political candidate can’t be seen sleeping on the sidewalk with her head next to a trash can. (The quirky artist, however, causes no scandal when carelessly displaying a profile pic of himself rolling a spliff.) So many people are quick to restrict viewing of their personal photographs and weblogs, pre-empting controversies at the workplace or amongst family. Are we no longer expected to let our guard down – ever? Or does it mean that we must all acknowledge how public our social, professional and personal lives have now become? Foucault would have had a field day with the panoptic discipline we’re exercising. We’re self-censoring like never before whilst simultaneously being led to believe that we have every freedom of expression.

Depth of field

There have been so many times that I wish I had my camera, afraid that I might forget what was in front of me. But strangely, those moments are the ones that stay with me longest.

If a picture tells a thousand words, personal memories make photographs seem like Shakespeare on acid.

The pictures might show me sitting under a watermelon pink sunset, but it doesn’t tell you how tart and minty my cold mojito was that evening. They might show a group of us at our high school graduation, but it won’t show the purple hickey I was hiding under my sari. My parents don’t know that the boyfriend they hated so much was the one making me smile when he took the picture of me that’s framed in their bedroom. You can’t smell the grass from my pictures in the park.

I think my relationship with photographs is becoming increasingly distant. They’ve come to represent a moment, but not the experience of it. Pictures trigger memories and anecdotes. Like my grandmother’s portrait. Maybe not quite as graceful, but nonetheless real. Like the music that was playing at the time you looked into the camera, that nobody heard but you.

Please insert a coin

The number you have dialled is temporarily not available. (flickr user Christian Watzke)

The number you have dialed is temporarily not available. (flickr user Christian Watzke)

Pay-as-you-go contracts for cell phones can be very irritating. I usually run out of credit at the most inconvenient times, subsequently roaming London’s neighborhoods looking for a place to buy a top-up voucher. The last time I encountered such inconvenience was on my recent trip to Berlin, Germany.

Notwithstanding any EU initiatives to cap roaming charges or standardize chargers, you still cannot buy top-up credit for a UK mobile in Berlin. And so I was forced to do something that I thought I would never do again in my life: I had to use a public phone booth.

A brief history of Telefonzellen

Before my parents allowed me my first cell phone, I had to rely on them quite a bit. That was in the mid-90s, when they were still placed inside little yellow cabins and in 9 out of 10 cases vandalized beyond functioning. According to this incredibly interesting “Historie der Telefonzelle” (careful, it’s in German but has some pictures to look at), there were about 120.000 of them in 1994.

After ignoring phone booths for the past ten years or so, I found myself walking around Berlin looking for one of the 110.000 that are still remaining. They are white-gray-magenta in color now – because the operator changed to Deutsche Telekom – and they are no longer inside a little cabin, as an attempt to curb vandalism.

Picking up the handset, taking out a 50 cents coin from my wallet, the sound of it falling through the apparatus, and slowly dialing the number on the sticky metal keypad – I felt uncomfortable, almost like traveling backwards in time…

Identity under attack

Why did the use of a public phone booth after ten years of abstinence leave such a memorable impression on me? I think it has to do with identity.

Before I went up to the phone, I looked around to see whether anybody was watching me, maybe even somebody I know. The phone was in a busy market place, and – as I mentioned before – no longer inside a cabin. The entire time I was using the phone, I felt vulnerable and somehow under surveillance – even though people just went on buying their fruits and vegetables.

The other person answered the phone. “Where are you calling from?”

“From a public phone booth”, I said.

“Oh… really?” (Astonishment. Silence.)

“Yes, really. Let’s make it quick, I’m almost out of coins.”

When I met that person half an hour later, he used his iPhone to figure out the way to the nearest coffee place. And that’s when I realized where the discomfort of using a public phone booth really comes from.

Latte machiato drinking, cosmopolitanism embracing, Apple products using people like me don’t use phone booths. That is so 20th century, hello?!

Because we have become so terribly self-reflexive, self-aware, and self-promotional, our identity feels threatened if we find ourselves in a public phone booth. At least, that is my explanation for why it was such a big deal for me.

I’ve done some identity work since then. I have now integrated the use of public phone booths into my identity collage. It’s filed under “back to the roots” and “retro is cool”.