Week 2 : Ecologies of Information

In “The Black Stack,” Bratton writes that “the real nightmare, worse than the one in which the big machine wants to kill you, is the one in which it sees you as irrelevant, or as not even a discreet thing to know” (Bratton, 2014). I found this fear of the rapidly changing digital world to be intriguing because an issue that came up in all of this week’s readings is the question of who knowledge infrastructures serve and who it sees as irrelevant and ignores. The pieces by Star and, Hess and Ostrom address the fact that all infrastructures, material or immaterial, online or offline are “subject to social dilemmas” and therefore those who are marginalised or outside the prescribed norm continue to be so (Hess and Ostrom 3, 2007). When it comes to digital or technological development, there often seems to be a disregard for the social issues already present and the potential consequences of the development (the example I have in mind is Amazon Go). In terms of changing, replacing, or improving infrastructure, I am curious about the question brought up by Star, “When is an infrastructure finished and how do we know that?” (Star 379, 1999).

Week2. Ecologies of Information: The interface

A couple of years ago I read The Black Stack, and founding compelling his definition of the “inverse panopticon effect”, I toke my phone to add his quote to my records. For that, I used the speech to text feature of the iPhone Notes app, but soon enough I found the task of transferring the text via sound to an interface powered by a machine learning algorithm was almost impossible. Even when the machine heard the words accurately they were changed automatically to what the system understood as more likely to have being said.

These weeks readings provided me another lens to understand the interface: the commons and the infrastructure. The data used to train the interface can be seen as the commons, a shared resource that grows with every user inadvertent contribution and simultaneously affects every user interaction. On the other hand, the infrastructure properties study by Starr can effortlessly be applied to the interface. In my struggle with the iPhone app, the interface bias became visible upon breakdown, upon an interaction that failed to follow the “conventions of practice”.

Processing: Ecologies of Information (Week 2)

This week we read three different metaphors of digital information systems: 1) infrastructure; 2) the stack; 3) the commons. Starr, for example, is concerned with the design of information systems through standards, protocols, categories that may be biased but becomes deeply entrenched and embedded in the network once adopted. Bratton wrestles with emerging governmentalities that transcend physical and sovereign boundaries, and its actors include both private corporations as well as states. Bratton proposes the idea of the Black Stack—an “image of a totality” that directly contrasts with Starr’s metaphor of information as infrastructure.

While Starr uses the metaphor of infrastructure to map out potential sites of research into information systems, it’s not clear what action items can be taken from the metaphor of the “Stack,” or even from just the idea of the “Cloud platforms.” The specific referents are companies like Google and Amazon, which provide services that are very much grounded in and powered, literally, by very physical infrastructure and human labor. Their sheer wealth and influence do distort traditional geopolitics, for example see Amazon’s enormous leverage over the city of choice for their new headquarter. But the Stack-like verticality of relationships doesn’t appear to be useful in terms of visualizing its components (so to identify sites of research/potential intervention). As Chris Watterston’s famous sticker says:

There is no cloud, it's just someone else's computer.

An Opportunity for Developers / Software Engineers Interested in Moving Image Archiving

From Rachel Mattson, who’ll be visiting us in class in late November:

I’m getting in touch with an opportunity for the developers and software engineers among you: a chance to attend the annual conference of The Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA) with support from the Digital Library Federation.

The award, which includes up to $1,250 in travel funding as well as registration, will go to one software development professional from the DLF community. The ideal applicant:

  • Seeks more exposure to trends in stewarding digital audiovisual collections.
  • Would not typically attend the conference, but can envision and articulate a connection with their work.
  • Sees great value in building a dynamic and diverse peer network.
  • Is interested in participating in the AMIA+DLF Hack Day on November 28, 2018.
  • Is enthusiastic about collaborating with preservation professionals who have varying levels of technical expertise.
  • Is affiliated with a DLF member institution.

The Association of Moving Image Archivists Conference will take place in Portland, Oregon, November 28-December 1, 2018, and we are pleased to partner with them once again in sponsoring the fifth annual DLF/AMIA Hack Day, bringing together collections practitioners and managers with developers and engineers for a day of collaboration.

Please share with anyone who may be interested in this award! The deadline to apply is September 14th.

Cornell Tech Digital Life Seminar Series

Thursdays 12:30 to 2pm
Cornell Tech Campus, Roosevelt Island, Tata Innovation Center, Room 131


Thursday 30 AUGUST | 2018
Jake Goldenfein | Digital Life Initiative, Cornell Tech
The Profiling Potential of Computer Vision


Over the past decade, researchers have been inves­ti­gat­ing new tech­nolo­gies for cat­e­goris­ing people based on phys­i­cal attrib­utes alone. Unlike pro­fil­ing with behav­ioural data cre­ated by inter­act­ing with infor­ma­tional envi­ron­ments, these tech­nolo­gies record and mea­sure data from the ‘real world’ and use it to make a deci­sion about the​ ‘world state’ – in this case a judge­ment about a person. Auto­mated Per­son­al­ity Analy­sis and Auto­mated Per­son­al­ity Recog­ni­tion, for instance, are grow­ing sub-​dis­ci­plines of com­puter vision and computer listening. This family of tech­niques has been used to gen­er­ate per­son­al­ity pro­files, assess­ments of sex­u­al­ity, polit­i­cal orientation and crim­i­nal­ propensity using facial mor­pholo­gies and speech expres­sions alone. These pro­fil­ing sys­tems do not target the con­tent of images or speech, but measure and analyse para-visual and para-sonic information to train classifiers for revealing non-visual information like personal typologies and behavioural predictions.

While the knowl­edge claims of these pro­fil­ing tech­niques are often ten­ta­tive, they increas­ingly deploy a vari­ant of ​‘big data epis­te­mol­ogy’ suggesting there is more infor­ma­tion in a human face or in spoken sound than is acces­si­ble or com­pre­hen­si­ble to humans. This paper explores the bases of those claims and the sys­tems of mea­sure­ment that are deployed in com­puter vision and lis­ten­ing. It asks if there is some­thing new in this class of data science knowledge claim, and attempts to under­stand what it means to com­bine com­pu­ta­tional empiri­cism, sta­tis­ti­cal analy­ses, and prob­a­bilis­tic rep­re­sen­ta­tions to pro­duce knowl­edge about people. Finally, the paper explores possible mechanisms for contesting the emergence of computational empiricism as the dominant knowledge platform for understanding the world and people within it.

Thursday 06 SEPTEMBER | 2018
Glen Weyl | Microsoft Research
Data as Labor


Glen Weyl is a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research New York City and teaches economics at Princeton University. His work on political economy seeks to combine economics, law, technology, philosophy to design radically egalitarian and inclusive markets that can address large scale social problems. He has published his research in leading journals in economics, law and computer science and has taught at the University of Chicago and Yale. However, he has recently turned towards communicating with and building a movement among a broader public. This began with is book Radical Markets: Uprooting Capitalism and Democracy for a Just Society joint with Eric Posner, but has continued in his work advising a wide range of start-ups developing Radical Markets ideas (especially in the blockchain space), helping organize a data labor movement, working with governments and political leaders around the world and collaborating with artists and other communicators to realize the true democratic potential of Radical Markets ideas.Glen is working to organize these strands into a coherent social movement through a variety of community-building activities and in particular is organizing a conference around Radical Markets, RadicalxChange, in March 2019.


Weyl will discuss “Data as Labor” as a conceptual frame, a set of organizational principles and a social movement. He will argue that conceiving of data as labor can make significant progress in resolving a number of theoretical and social problems associated with the exploitation of data and its creators, including the privacy-ownership dialectic, the paltry share of value added paid to labor in the high tech sector and the problematics of platform size and power. Weyl will discuss how data as labor suggests the need for a new kind of organization (“mediators of individual data” or MIDs) analogous to labor unions that would act as fiduciaries and loci of collective bargaining to protect data creators and describe eight principles for a successful MID. He will describe recent progress in creating a data labor movement and briefly conclude by placing it in a broader context of the Radical Markets agenda he has been developing.

Thursday 27 SEPTEMBER | 2018
Francesca Rossi | IBM AI Ethics Global Leader

Respondent: Daniel P. Huttenlocher | Cornell Tech, Dean and Vice Provost


Francesca Rossi is the IBM AI Ethics Global Leader, a distinguished research scientist at the IBM T.J. Watson Research Centre, and a professor of computer science at the University of Padova, Italy. Francesca’s research interest focuses on artificial intelligence, specifically constraint reasoning, preferences, multi-agent systems, computational social choice, and collective decision making. She is also interested in ethical issues surrounding the development and behavior of AI systems, in particular for decision support systems for group decision making. A prolific author, Francesca has published over 190 scientific articles in both journals and conference proceedings as well as co-authoring A Short Introduction to Preferences: Between AI and Social Choice. She has edited 17 volumes, including conference proceedings, collections of contributions, special issues of journals, and The Handbook of Constraint Programming.

NY Art Book Fair, September 21-23

Printed Matter’s NY Art Book Fair (NYABF) is the leading international gathering for the distribution of artists’ books, celebrating the full breadth of the art publishing community. Free and open to the public, the event draws more than 35,000 individuals including book lovers, collectors, artists, and art world professionals each year. In 2018, the NYABF will host 365 exhibitors from around the world featuring a wide variety of works – from zines and artists’ books to antiquarian books and contemporary art editions. The NYABF offers countless opportunities to attend free programs including artist-led discussions, performances, interactive workshops, and curated exhibitions.

@ MoMA PS1

Preview Thursday, September 20, 6-9pm (Ticketed)
Friday, September 21, 1-7pm
Saturday, September 22, 11am-9pm
Sunday, September 23, 11am-7pm


If You Missed Our First Day


Every semester a few students have to miss our first class for any of a number of reasons — because of travel or visa complications, because they’ve added the class after our first meeting, etc. If you’re among those who’ll be joining us late, I encourage you to take a half-hour to look through all the pages on this website:

  • You’ll find the course description and numbers and my contact info on the About the Class page.
  • I describe all of our readings and other resources, and how to access them, on the Resources page.
  • On the Requirements and Assignments page, I list all of your responsibilities: your expectations for attendance and engagement; your reading responses (which you should begin posting within the first three weeks of the semester); your application presentation (you’ll choose a date for your presentation in the next couple weeks), and your final, which can take the form of either a traditional paper, a non-traditionally-formatted paper, or a research-based and critically-informed creative project.
  • Please review our Policies + Procedures, too.
  • In the Schedule + Readings section, you’ll find a separate “block” for each day of our semester. All the texts listed under a particular date are to be read for that class. Again, for more context on how these texts were chosen, see the Resources page.
  • You’ll also find that on each day’s page within the Schedule + Readings section, I’ll post my slides and any other learning materials we use in class each day. Since you will miss — or have missed — our first class, please review the slides and any other materials I post on our August 28 page. I’ll post each week’s materials before class begins — i.e., by 4pm on Tuesdays.

We look forward to meeting you on Week 2! Please come to class having read all the texts listed on our September 4 page!