Monday, March 28, 2011

More American Values Photos Needed

Well, it looks like my "American Values" project might be about to get a new life. If you don't already know, I put out a call on this blog several weeks back asking people to snap a photo of themselves naming something that they hold as a value and then to send me their images. My idea was that I would collect all of the photos and put them together in a video (which I did, and which you can view here) in part to demonstrate how this thing we call "American Values" is often far more complex than our uses of it in social, moral and political discourse would suggest. I thought it was a pretty interesting project-- I wrote a little about the backstory of putting it together-- and it now seems as if others thought it was interesting as well. So, it looks like the Little Idea That Could is not dead yet and may soon be revived in a slightly different form. (Sorry I can't say more about it now, but details of the revival will be forthcoming.) There's one catch, though: I NEED MORE IMAGES!

If you didn't participate before and are currently kicking yourself over missing the opportunity-- yes, I'm looking at you-- here's one of life's very rare second chances. All you need to do is write down (on some kind of sign) a value that you hold dear and then take a photo of yourself holding that sign and then . There are a couple of clarifications that I didn't make in the original call that I want to make now. First, even though the project is entitled "American Values," it is NOT necessary that you choose a value that you consider to be an "American" value. Just write something down that you personally value. That said, you must be an American (or living in America) to participate. This is, I think, what allows the whole collection to be properly named "American" values. That is to say, "American Values" is the collection of values that Americans hold... or such is the premise of this project, anyway. Second, it's important that you actually write down your value, instead of taking a photo that you already have and photoshopping your value into it. (As much as I liked some of the images I received like this, it's important now that there be some deliberate agency employed in the combination of word and image.) Finally, as I said before, don't be dissuaded to participate just because you don't have a great camera (an iPhone works fine), or you're not particularly artistic (neither am I), or you can't decide on a single value (who can?), or you don't think you're photogenic (some of the photos are sans faces). Just do it.

If you're really feeling stumped, I recommend that you take a look at the images I already have here or just watch the video. I'm confident that you'll find it inspiring and hopefully it will help get your creative juices flowing. If you still need a little more coaxing, I also recommend you read some of the first-hand accounts of other contributors. Jessica Lotz's is here. Zeke Leonard's is here. Steven Thomas' is here. Petya Kirilova-Grady's is here. If their stories don't move you to participate, nothing will.

I don't have a new deadline for new submissions, but the sooner I can fill out the collection, the better. So, please send yours in ASAP. Thanks again to all who have participated. And thanks in advance to those of you who will soon.

Monday, March 21, 2011

American Philosophy and/or Philosophy in America

Several years ago, when I was still at Penn State, I learned of Phillip McReynolds' film project on American Philosopher (or philosophers in America) through my dissertation advisor (and McReynolds' wife), Shannon Sullivan. Since then, I've seen a few segments of it appear here and there on the internet, but I had yet to see the entire finished version, so I'm extremely happy to be able to share the full version below. Some of this country's most prominent philosophers are interviewed in the film and McReynolds' does a fine job of soliciting from them the right kinds of reflections on this bizarre, complicated and somewhat makeshift thing we call "philosophy" in America. McReynolds' interviewees are often quite candid about the subjects under discussion, which range from the sophisticated (what is the difference between Analytic, Continental and American philosophy?) and the mundane (what is it like to be a part of a profession that forces you to move so often over the course of your career?).

As the title "American Philosopher" suggests, the film chiefly focuses on deciphering what is meant by the association of the two constituent terms "philosophy" and "American." In this country, professional philosophy is divided between three (more or less) distinct categories-- Analytic, Continental, and American-- and McReynolds's films features representatives of all three. If the "American" in "American Philosophy" is just a geographical adjective, all of McReynolds' subjects are "American Philosophers," technically speaking. So it's interesting to see the manner in which some of them take up that designation more or less comfortably than others.

Here is the film in its entirety, which runs a little over an hour long. You can watch it in short "parts" here, but I highly recommend seeing the whole thing.

American Philosopher The Film from Phillip McReynolds on Vimeo.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Uncanny Valley 7: Sonzai-Kan

Every time I try to put away my obsession with the uncanny valley, some new robot or robot-story invades my world and reanimates that fascination all over again. Regular readers of this blog will know that I first became interested in robotocist Masahiro Mori's theory of the uncanny valley back in October of 2010, when I first speculated that Mori's theory suggested a fascinating non-human/human distinction that was structurally parallel-- but not identical-- to the way we think about the simulation/real distinction. Since then, I've written a series of posts on the uncanny valley here, this being the seventh in that series. The catalyst for this most recent uncanny valley revival is threefold, motivated by (1) the release of videos from the Geminoid project's test of their new robot "Geminoid-DK," (2) a recent NPR story on the ethical implications of "social robots," and (3) the reflections of Brian Christian, who recently served as a human participant in the contest (a variant of the Turing Test) that determines the Loebner Prize for Artificial Intelligence winner. (Christian has written a book, The Most Human Human, about that experience that I haven't finished yet.) Since I'm still reading Christian's book and since addressing all three of these topics would make for a overly lengthy read, I'll separate them into separate posts. First up: Geminoid-DK.

Geminoid is a Japanese research group that develops remote-control doppelgängers (or, as they call their products, "real-person based androids"). Geminoid describes its work as interested in both in the mechanical engineering aspects of android development (i.e., "effective tele-operation interface or generation of natural, humanlike motion") and also in the development of androids that possess what they call a "human presence" (or Sonzai-kan in Japanese). If you haven't yet seen their latest development, Geminoid-DK, here are some short videos of him/it:

The research group Geminoid (from geminus, Latin for "twin") is the brainchild of Hiroshi Ishiguro (aka, The Man Who Made A Copy of Himself). The image at the top of this post is Ishiguro and his own robot-double. "Geminoid-DK" in the videos above is the most recent and most advanced-- meaning, most "humanlike"-- creation so far. Ishiguro has created several such androids that you can see here. One of his earliest was a copy of his daughter, and it is reported to have unsettled her so badly that she refused to step foot in his lab after seeing her mechanical doppelgänger. Ishiguro's daughter's response confirms, in a way, the success of his project, which aims to manufacture robots that are humanlike enough to transmit some element of the Sonzai-kan (Japanese for "presence" or "authority") of their real-human models. But what does "humanlike" mean? What is Sonzai-kan?

What I find the most interesting about Ishiguro's approach to his project is that he understands the degree to which our attempts to re-create ourselves ("mechanically" in this case, but I think the insight applies equally to our literary, artistic, and even philosophical attempts to do the same) brings us into sober confrontation with that which is by definition impossible to copy: the idiomatic, the idiosyncratic, the ἴδιος (Greek, idios, meaning "pertaining to one's self, one's own, belonging to one's self"). My intuition is that this is what is meant by Sonzai-kan, and a similar "presence" or "authority" is intended by Western variants of Sonzai-kan like "soul," "personality," or "identity." And my intuition is that THIS is what we find at the heart of the uncanny. Ishiguro's daughter (pictured left with her doppelgänger) likely would not have had the same reaction to a copy of one of her father's other androids, but she experienced the copy of herself as uncanny. Is that because the simulation or manufactured creation presents itself to us as having no sui generis charactertistics, no Sonzai-kan, no real "presence" or self-generated "authority"? As I attempted to argue in my first iteration of uncanny valley reflections, the copy is never non-pareil. Art that aims to represent (or re-present) the human will always confront this problem. Or, at least, it will until we radically redefine what we mean by "the human"-- which is what I think arts like Ishiguro's are attempting to do.

A colleague of mine, an author and Professor of creative writing, recently recounted a story to me of one of his students whose fiction pieces left much to be desired. The student's problem, he explained, was that she seemed unable to relay her characters and situations in anything more than a reporter's narrative voice. There was no "life" to the student's prose-- and this is my interpretation of his complaint, not his words-- because the persons, things and states of affairs she was creating/recounting had no "presence." No Sonzai-kan, no redolence or affect or feeling, no familiarity. They were, like reporter's accounts characteristically are, bad copies of the real. Because she was writing fiction, her product was doubly unsatisfactory: it possessed neither the inimitable presence of the real, nor the simulated presence of art. It did not, and could not, move its reader or inspire in him anything like an experience-- not even the experience of the uncanny-- nor could it inspire any of the human affects (joy, fear, revulsion, compassion) generated by experience.

It is the generation of those affects that I think Ishiguro is attempting to equip his robots with, and he clearly believes that the only way to do this is by figuring out how to "transmit" Sonzai-kan. The problem, of course, is that Sonzai-kan-- whatever that is-- stands between the real (whatever that is) and its simulation (whatever that is) and seems to refuse us the luxury of their mutual contamination.

But more on this later... Next up in the uncanny valley series: (1) Social Robots and (2) The Most Human Human. Stay tuned!

Sunday, March 06, 2011

American Values

A couple of weeks ago, I put out a call here on the blog for help with a video project I wanted to put together on "American Values." I asked people to send me a photograph of themselves naming something that they valued. It was a simple idea, initially conceived as an interesting little side project that might help me learn a bit more about image and video editing. And then it took on a life of its own...

If you're interested in reading more of this project's back story, I posted an account of what I am now calling "The Little Idea That Could" a couple of days ago here. I really cannot exaggerate how much I've enjoyed doing this. I consider myself significantly indebted to all of the people who sent in contributions-- many of them friends, acquaintances or colleagues of mine, but some complete strangers as well. The sheer quantity of material that I had to work with was both impressive and intimidating, and I hope I've done it justice.

What you see below is the long version of the "American Values" video. I plan to make several shorter, 3-minute variations on this in the coming weeks. For the best effect, I recommend you view the video here in "full screen" mode. The video is in HD, so if you have a slow connection speed, you may also want to give it a moment to buffer.

Against my own (very strong) inclinations, I'm going to resist for now commenting at length on what I think this video demonstrates about "American Values." I'd like you all to see it first, without the filter of my interpretation, and I hope you will make use of the comments section here to offer your own insights and reflections. Of course, I won't be able to quiet the philosophical impulse to comment for long. My restraint has its limits, after all.

Thank you again to all of the contributors. You are all acknowledged at the end of the video.

American Values from Leigh Johnson on Vimeo.

You can also see/share the video on YouTube. Here's the link.


UPDATE 3/28/11: I still need more images for this project! Read about the continuing saga here.


UPDATE 4/6/11: The images keep coming in (and we'll take them as long as you send them)! Here is the slides how of all of the images so far, including those that didn't make it into the original video. Send yours!


UPDATE 4/17/11: American Values has it's own website now. Check it out!

Saturday, March 05, 2011

"American Values" Video Project.... or, The Little Idea That Could

I'm not yet finished editing the "American Values" video, some of the images of which are in this collage on your left, but I wanted to share a bit about the making-of the project, which is turning into one of the most serendipitously rewarding things I've stumbled into in quite some time. I'll start at the beginning...

Not too long ago, in observance of the World Day of Social Justice (February 20th), one of the student activist groups on my campus (Rhodes GlobeMed) asked people to fill in the blank for the following statement: "Everyone has a right to_______." GlobeMed then photographed and compiled in a video all the participants with their answers written on their hands. You can watch GlobeMed's excellent video here. Some of my best and brightest students were involved in the making of that video and that's how I found out about it. When I saw GlodeMed's final product, I thought to myself: I should do something like this with my Human Rights class. However, I didn't want to start up a big project with my class until I had figured out all of the technical nuts and bolts first, so I endeavored to construct for myself something like a "practice" video project. (And you see where this is going, I'm sure...) Just to be clear at the outset here, this project began as a trial-run for what I hoped would later be something like a new pedagogical strategy/skill. This video wasn't, technically speaking, "for" anything other than my own education and edification. Little did I know what it would turn into...

Anyway, back to my no-idea state. Over the course of the next few evenings, after I had resolved to come up with a concept for a practice video but before I had any idea what to do, I was sitting on my couch and flipping through the cable news stations. I couldn't help but notice how many times the talking heads made reference to "American Values" in the course of their arguments, indicating dramatically different values depending on which head was talking. I thought to myself EUREKA! I'VE GOT AN IDEA! What if I just asked Americans (I happen to know a lot of them) what their values were? Surely THAT would be an interesting video project and a good practice run for whatever I decided to do with my Human Rights class later. So that, my friends, was the beginning of what I'm now calling my "American Values" video project.

I set myself some arbitrary deadlines-- which I assumed, at the time, would be very easy to meet-- and then I put out the call for contributors here on the blog and then on Facebook and then by email to some of my colleagues and friends. I had a basic idea of what I wanted, namely, for people to photograph themselves indicating (on a sign) something that they counted among their "core values." My guess was that IF I was lucky enough to get more than a handful of submissions, they would all be variations on two or three common core values (love, freedom, justice, god, blahblahblah, etc.) and that I just might get enough to cobble together a 3-minute video demonstrating the actual diversity of American values.

And then the photos started coming in...

And they kept coming. And coming. And coming. And then the deadline passed and they STILL KEPT COMING! A couple of mornings I would wake up to a dozen or so new photos in my email inbox-- most from people I know (or sort of know), but some from people who just happened upon my blog or saw it on someone else's Facebook page or otherwise heard it through the grapevine. I really can't capture how shocked and awed I was to see not only the sheer volume of people who responded, but also the creativity and artistry of their photo compositions. When I posted a few of the contributions on my Facebook page, I think that served as a catalyst for even more people to exercise even greater imagination. (And, by the way, a LOT of people out there have VERY nice cameras.) When the time for sending in photos had officially expired, I found myself with a whole set of new problems. I needed to acquire (and learn) more sophisticated editing software. I needed to develop my inner auteur, figure out some basic rules for how I was going to manipulate and arrange the images. I needed to select some music. And, most importantly, I needed to figure out how in the world was I going to produce a video that could do justice to all of these people's photos and values???

So, that's where I am now. Editing and re-editing and re-re-editing. As soon as it's done, I'll post it here on the blog.

I just want to say a BIG THANK YOU to everyone who shared their photos and values with me, especially those of you who sent along such nice stories about how/why you chose the value you chose or the image you photographed. (I wish I could include some of those stories in the video!) Some of you wrote to me in advance of sending your contributions in with some really great questions that helped me focus the half-baked idea for this project: do I have to be in the picture? is this supposed to be "my" value or what I think an "American" value is? what if my picture is "offensive"? what if it's too political or not political enough? what if I'm not photogenic? When I finally had all of them collected, I was overwhelmed. There are images from all over the United States, from young and old, from all races, from various walks of life. There isn't a single one that I don't find deeply moving and inspirational in it's own way. And, for the record, you all look fabulous.

Yesterday, feeling a bit overwhelmed, I complained that I "now had a whole load of other people's values that I had to figure out how to do something with." My good friend, Joshua Miller, responded: "This is the problem of liberal pluralism in a nutshell." He's right, of course. But it's also the great promise of liberal pluralism as well. The final video, I hope, will demonstrate my basic intuition about Americans and their values: we're a complex, imaginative, unpredictable, creative and non-quantifiably diverse community of people, alternately overlapping and contradicting each other in ways that are sometimes problematic, other times promising. Collecting all of your images, seeing all of your values, and putting this video together has been a great gift to me... even if also a lot of work!

Finally, I wanted to say that I will happily take more photos if you weren't able to get them in to me before the deadline. It's unlikely that I'll be able to include them in the video, but I will post them to the photo album on Facebook that will (eventually) include all the submissions.

Now, back to the editing board...

[UPDATE: The video is complete and posted here.]

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

80K Come and Gone

I've been so busy with the "American Values" video project that I hardly noticed that we just passed another milestone here on the blog...

80,000 hits and counting!

I'm especially appreciative this time because I've been a bit of an IRREDEEMABLE SLACKER so far this year when it comes to regular blog posts. Never fear, loyal readers, you're in for a super treat very soon when I post the final version of the "American Values" video.

Thanks for continuing to come back.