penelope.di.pixel presenting the first prototype of my algorithmic autobiography in Düsseldorf, for the Streaming Egos project

Again on Algorithmic Autobiography

Do you remember this?

It was the first time in which we spoke about the new literary genre we were about to launch: the Algorithmic Autobiography.

Many of you asked for more info, and we promised them. Well, here they are now. :)

What follows is a short version of a much longer text you will find HERE, on Art is Open Source.

The piece is by Oriana Persico (aka penelope.di.pixel), and I only edited it a bit for Medium.


Algorithmic Autobiography: the uncertain boundaries of the “I” and the “Self” in the age of Hyperconnectivity

“TO DRAW A LINE YOU NEED A PEN, TO HOLD A PEN YOU NEED A HAND, BUT WHAT IS BEHIND THE HAND IS A DEBATABLE MATTER.”
ITALO CALVINO

What is an autobiography?

Are we writing an autobiography by leaving our traces on social networks, every day? What about the large quantities of other digital traces we leave behind in our lives?

What happens when non-human and algorithmic subjects/entities come into play, increasing the complexity of our interactions and influencing the process of construction and perception of the self?

We progressively expose ourselves more, every day, consciously and unconsciously, with consequences that are difficult to grasp: about time, identity, memory, rights.

For the Streaming Egos project we have decided tackle this topic and analyse the uncertain territories/boundaries of the “I” and “self” asking ourselves who (and/or what) is the author of our autobiographies in the hyper-connected and syncretic world we live in.

Rather than conclusive answers, we found a series open questions, leading us to establish a new research field in which we will progressively try to explore the mutation of self narratives and, more precisely, the meanings and possible consequences of a contemporary, technologically mediated autobiography.

Writing an autobiography: from authorship to curatorship. That is, the narrative and processual nature of the Self

The Self is a puzzle that philosophy — and more recently psychology and cognitive sciences — has always dealt with.

Approaching this complex matter will lead us to frightening and fundamental questions concerning our existence, consciousness, the ways in which we perceive space and time, and how we understand, produce and transfer knowledge: Do “I” exist? Does the external world exist? What is the “subject”? What is the “object”? What is memory? Are my memories “true”?…

The list of questions is much longer and the puzzle is unsolvable in one single self-conclusive image. But with a few simple observations we can try to inspect them by watching our behaviors, which is a good starting point:

  • The self is a membrane: it acts simultaneously as the separation and meeting point between the subject and the outside world, and as such it allows us to establish relationships (between the I, the others, the world);
  • The self changes but also remains the same: for example, we can recognise ourselves in an old childhood photo as opposed to the adults we have become;
  • Despite the great complexity that the self raises as a philosophical object, we constantly and spontaneously “speak” about our self — everyday, since our childhood.

In his paper “The Self across Psychology: self-recognition, self-awareness and self-concept”, psychologist Jerome Bruner argues that the self is a matter of language. This is why, according to Bruner, we can consider the self as a narrative process, rather than an “object”, which allows us to create coherent narratives about our lives along space, time and cultures.

The self is strictly connected to memory processes and identity.

Many criticise the universal, stable and autonomous idea of individual, and shift the focus to the idea of the subject in process and in context.

We are never alone when we write our life story. Other people are always with us, with their presence, influences, relations, interactions, shaping not only our behaviours, but also what we remember, what we feel as relevant, important, worthwhile, changing the ways in which we express it, for whom, and the contracts we establish by expressing ourselves: what to show, what to hide, how to interpret it, how to shape it.

We don’t create our autobiography out of nothing. Rather, the story’s outline and plot are the result of numerous impulses and micro/macro events (conscious or unconscious), relations, power relations, one’s own memories and memories of others.

Our autobiographies, just like the self, are a process: the result of a constant remix. Rather than in “originality” authorship finds its basis in “composition”, in the continuous process of “sewing the pieces together” that the self operates in order to give shape to the outline and plot of our lives, turning them into narrative material with which we can mould identities. More than “authors” we are “curators” of our own story, which turns out to be a fragmented object formed by a mixture of elements and materials, acted by multiple subjects. The only seemingly compact definition of autobiography (“writing one self’s story”) shows us a polymorphic and recombinant nature, which nowadays intertwines with (and lives through) new ubiquitous, technologically mediated dimensions.

GhostWriter and Algorithmic Autobiography: a non human author, a new literary genre

We decided to explore an evolutive tension.

On the one hand, we confronted with the emergence of new forms of writing and of non-human authors, which are already influencing our relations and the ways in which we can perceive/perform/build our self-narratives. On the other hand, we tried to deal with the opaque and hidden nature of these writings and authors, mainly the software agents, algorithms, artificial intelligences which fill many aspects of our ordinary experience, and the organisations which control them.

Whether we realize it or not, whether we want it or not, a number of subjects and entities continuously keep track of the digital traces we produce, constructing multiple versions of narrations of our lives, each with different focuses, parameters, points of view, perspectives.

These are, to all effects, biographies.

Even more: they are two times auto-biographies. Auto, because they are automatically collected, processed and composed. And auto, because we produce and express these bits of memory ourselves in our daily lives, through our ordinary performances, like entries in a ubiquitous diary.

How it works

GhostWriter embodies this new type of non-human author. It observes our digital traces, interprets them to extract the patterns of a story, and finally hands them back to us in a hierarchic structure under the form of proper publications: new types of books.

Imagine commissioning your autobiography to GhostWriter.

Doing this would be as simple as granting it with the possibility for a total invasion of your privacy: give it access to your email, bank account, social network profiles, mobile phone, your wearable devices, the network connected devices in your home, your blog or website and more. In short: to all the possible data you originate.

GhostWriter will constantly collect all of this data, analyse and process it by using a series of different techniques such as Machine Learning, Natural Language Analysis, Emotional Analysis, Network Analysis, to understand the topics, relations, emotions you express, the places you visit and the times you spend there, transforming the non-structured data flow coming from your daily life into a structured one: usable information to understand and describe you.

To organise and represent all of this information, we have decided to use Convey’s and Pleydell-Pearce’s SMS (Self Memory System) model.

Open questions and possible consequences

After the Streaming Egos exhibit, which was featured in Dusseldorf on January 16–17th 2016, we had in our hands a new, perturbing, object.

If we have demonstrated that non-human forms of writing are already in place influencing our perception and the way in which we construct the self, what (social, anthropological, political, legal) consequences can the existence and wide accessibility of an “Algorithmic Autobiography” have on people’s lives?

We want to conclude this article trying to expand this question.

Recombinant, human/not human identities: a possibilistic vision of the “autobiographical pact”

When we relate to an “autobiography” we accept to relate to “someone” which is telling us a “non-fiction”, “truthful” story about “his/her” life: this is what scholar Phlippe Lejeune defines as the “autobiographical pact” Which, he argues, is the condition for an autobiography to exist and to be considered as “valid”.

It means that we recognize this “someone” (the “author”) as a subject with a defined identity, and with precise responsibilities to us (the readers). In a word: we establish a “contract” (with social and even possible legal consequences).

In the context of the Algorithmic Autobiography, unprecedented types of subjects (authors) can come into play. A couple, a class of students, a group of friends, a collective of artists, a company, an institution and so on, could decide to feed the GhostWriter, collecting and using their data sources: the result would be an “autobiography” attributable to and directly written by the couple, the class, the group, the collective, the company and the institution itself, here respectively recognised as the “authors” and as single defined identities. At the same time, one single person with multiple digital identities could publish multiple autobiographies (multiple, coexisting, even contradictory versions of the self) theoretically without violating the pact.

What we see here is a shift from a concept of identity based on the compact vision of “individual” to a more fluid, polymorphic and recombinant structure: a “multividual”, as prof. Massimo Canevacci Ribeiro calls it.

Individual is at the very basis of societies, in particular western societies: our ID and all sort of contracts we are allowed to stipulate are based on it.

  • What happens when, starting from existence of a new literary genre and interacting with new types of cultural artifacts (books/publications in this case), we deal with new “multividual” authors?
  • What kind of new social interaction we can imagine (or need) to validate the autobiographical pact as described by Lejeune?
  • What are the consequences at psychological, anthropological, political and legal levels, on people and society?
  • What does a polymorphic, recombinant, multividual based ID look like? How can we design and validate it?
  • Following the same logic, can we imagine new type of “contract” based on multividuals? What do they look like? What are the consequences on property, work, marriage and so on?
  • What are the rights od a multividual?

Things can get even more complicated.

We are now able to disseminate the environment with sensors.

We are building Smart Cities through this possibility, as well as smart homes, smart rural spaces, and smart schools, workplaces, kitchens, hospitals, brothels and bodies. With the Internet of Things we are populating our houses as well as our imaginaries with new connected objects and services. We are effectively transforming all of these objects/processes/products/services into potentially sentient agents, into potentially new types of subjects. This means that not only new types of human subject come into play, but also non-humans ones: a apartment building, a square, a wood, a river, a fridge, our dog can now write their own autobiography and tell us their own life story, just like we do. The GhostWriter will not make any difference, because from its point of view there is really no difference: humans and not humans subjects are (or can easily become) data generators.

Unlike smart services, an autobiography is not something we just buy or consume: or better, the act of buying and consuming an autobiography culturally implies a reciprocal relation between the authors and the reader. Otherness is added to the equation, in potentially disruptive ways.

  • What are the consequences (psychological, anthropological, political, legal) of a non-human or interspecies autobiography?
  • Do non-human entities/subjects have rights?
  • If yes, what kind of rights?
  • What are the relations and roles formed through this further form of autobiography? After all, we would be the ones designing the sensors, writing the algorithms, establishing what is sensed and what is not, deciding what gets stored or is relevant, and more. What happens, from this point of view, when a new “book” comes out: “The Autobiography of a network-connected lawn”?

On top of that there is software and authorship.

An Algorithmic Autobiography is written by all this different types of (multividual, human/not human) authors as well as by the GhostWriter: an actual algorithm. This lead us to the controversial realm of robo-ethics:

  • Who is responsible (even legally) for our algorithmic autobiography? The software who writes it, us or both?
  • What tools do we have (or we can design) to discern responsibilities, attributions, implications, boundaries and their progressive mutations? And: do we want to design them?
  • Is a sort of “contract” needed between us and the GhostWriter ? If yes, what does it look like?

Questions of time: a continuous present

Our brain is not designed to store or remember everything. It is quite the opposite: we carefully select the memories we need and we want; we choose what to remember and what to forget, in complex ways; we craft our memory and we decide what is public, private, intimate, what to show or not to show in an autobiography. We need to forget and we have the right to be forgotten (or do we?).

Algorithmic Autobiography describes a continuous present in which we potentially access all our memories, all at the same time, constantly, and in which the algorithm selects them and passes them to us.

A hint of this is represented by the “Facebook memories”, which are periodically brought to our attention by the popular social network. They are an everyday, consistent example of this kind of process: what happens when I get my daily “Facebook Memory” which sadly corresponds to a painful remembrance which I really didn’t want to remember; so painful that I commit suicide after seeing it? Who is responsible? Did Facebook kill me? Could an algorithm be designed to kill me in this way? Do we need a contract for this? Can I do legal action? And so on. This type of issue and the model which it describes, brings up infinite critical questions.

This is of course problematic.

  • Are we able to bear this as human beings?
  • What are the risks of being exposed to our and others’ memories, constantly?
  • How does this affect our relation to time? To the perception of our past and possible futures?
  • What about the right to be forgotten, both from the legal and existential point of view?
  • How does a society get ready for this type of change? (since we don’t really seem ready yet)

Privacy, data ownership and possible balance: Ubiquitous Commons and Algorithmic Autobiography

We have described GhostWriter as a “total invasion of privacy”.

This is mostly because until now our relation to the data we produce is mediated by operators and platforms which own our data, because the algorithms are opaque to us, and because we don’t know what data is harvested from us, how it is processed and how it is used. On top of that we don’t really have any possibility to express and enforce how we’d wish this data to be captured, processed and used.

Using the metaphor of the “ubiquitous diary”: not only at the moment it is invisible to us; we don’t really own it and we largely don’t know we are writing it, who will be able to read it and for what purpose.

In our practice, we confront with these kind of issues through the Ubiquitous Commons project.

Ubiquitous Commons is a research project which tries to confront the current scenario by creating a technological, legal and cultural protocol/toolkit. The starting point of the research is the creation of a p2p infrastructure in which people can describe identities and relations among identities, creating high quality relational environments in which to express how data is used, to be able to technologically, legally and collaboratively enforce these expressions, by using the protocol/toolkit.

There are a number of projects trying to confront with these issues, each in its own ways and with its own philosophies, but we will refer here to the Ubiquitous Commons, because we’re familiar with it, and because we believe in its approach:

  • Is it possible to apply Ubiquitous Commons in the context of the Algorithmic Autobiography?
  • With what results?

This are all questions we want to explore in the near future.

And remember to read the full piece on Art is Open Source.

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