sound bytes

SoundjenlucOne of the best things about my job as a science writer is that I get to meet scientists from every conceivable discipline. Not only am I privileged to learn about their research, but sometimes I get to hear about their fascinating hobbies. In the most interesting cases, their hobbies intersect with their work. UCLA statistician Mark Hansen is one such person. His science feeds directly into his passion for creating multimedia art.

Before taking up tenure at UCLA, Hansen worked at Bell Labs. Back in the 1960s, the company funded a program in "art technology" that teamed up engineers and scientists with New York City artists to create installations that combined the best of the science and art worlds. Not just any New York artists either; Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol were among the participants. Thirty years later, Bell Labs decided to revive the program, and through it, Hansen hooked up with his collaborator-in-crime, artist Ben Rubin.

After a couple of false starts, eventually they came up with "The Listening Post," a multimedia installation that doubles as an experiment in "sonofication": the process of turning raw data into sound, instead of plotting it onto a graph. Essentially, Hansen and Rubin built a data stream using random text gleaned from online bulletin boards and chat rooms; they also tracked users’ Web browsing activities. Using algorithms developed by Hansen, the data was processed and fed through a voice synthesizer, and the output used to "score" the video portion of the installation: a long panel of 231 small text displays, each about the size of a candy bar. Viewers can both see the random text, and hear firsthand how it translates into sound. So the end result is a visual and aural representation of data flow that proffers snippets of connectiveness, random glimpses of people interacting in the virtual world at any given moment. You can see video on the Web site, but the installation looks like this:Lp33_1

The Listening Post got its requisite fifteen minutes of fame; it was featured twice on National Public Radio, and even won a 2003 Webby Award for Net Art. It proved so popular that the San Jose Museum of Art will install an updated version of the project this summer, with the data stream expanded to include snippets from blogs, news sources, even Wikipedia. (Aspiring artiste Jen-Luc Piquant is delirious at the thought that perhaps her peppery blogservations will be randomly included in the exhibit at some point.) In 2007, the pair hope to unveil the latest innovation in their multimedium: delivering real-time data feeds to live actors, instead of using voice synthesizers and a grid of text displays. Because it lets the actors interpret the data anyway they like, it re-injects the human element into the technology.

Even though it’s little more than advanced data mining with an artistic twist, it all sounds a wee bit "Big Brother"-ish, particularly since Hansen’s day job is creating statistical algorithms to analyze the huge streams of data gleaned from embedded wireless sensor networks — all part of a California consortium known as the Center for Embedded Networked Systems (CENS). The ultimate goal of these kinds of embedded networks is the monitoring of everything from toxic contamination levels in rivers and streams, traffic flow, wildlife behavior patterns, and environmental changes, to the structural integrity of bridges and buildings, and — yes — Internet activity. One day in the not-too-distant future, anyone with a cell phone will be able to check the air quality in their immediate vicinity, a capability that should catch on like wildfire in the smog-infested Los Angeles area.

When I expressed a few reservations about the data sampling, Hansen assured me that individuals’ privacy is protected because the installation’s data stream is entirely random, and never alights on any one Cyber-spot for very long. Besides, data mining tools are already in widespread use on the Internet, as marketers try to target their products and services to individual consumer needs. (Jen-Luc Piquant points out that they can’t be very good at mining data, since we routinely get bundles of Spam each week offering exciting new products to increase the size of our non-existent penis. I guess that’s comforting, in a way.)

"Whether we like it or not, the flow of data exists to regulate our movements through the world, our behaviors," Hansen says. "It can be a positive force, it doesn’t have to be this negative thing." Blogging, for instance, is a handy precursor of what he is calling "citizen initiated sensing" (a.k.a. "slogging"), in which the blogosphere becomes a network of embedded citizen-sensors that engage in "local reporting," providing a data stream of, say, firsthand accounts of global conflicts or natural disasters — or cocktail-party physics. "The connection to the physical world adds a dimension beyond the use of the Web as a communication channel," he says. "Physical phenomena become anchors for activity and collaboration."

In Hansen’s brave new world, it’s no longer a world of producers and consumers; everyone is a user with varying degrees of participation. One of the patterns he’s noticed in random postings is that — apart from holiday greetings and salutations — most of us begin our posts with some version of "I am". It seems rather appropriate, frankly, and has inspired our new motto:

Blogito ergo sum. I blog, therefore, I am.

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