Coignée, Pluviôse, 228; Power modes, mind control, ancient games

Oh boy, there’s a lot of self-centred guff in this one. If you're not interested (and who could blame you) I would skip through the 'Power Modes' section but there’s no point pretending we don’t have implicit algorithms that we use to make decisions and structure our behaviour. Maybe not everyone does, maybe some folks are just totally confident and comfortable in themselves and their choices that they don’t try and rationalise them.

Mrs Revell and I bought our first flat over the summer and we've been settling in gradually. While the rest of the place is very designerly and tastefully finished my 'office' (the name of this room is still contentious) is the dumping ground for stuff that has nowhere else to go and old furniture. I'm hoping to get some time over the summer to sort it out but for now this is where I write to you from.


I finished up *New* Program for Graphic Design by David Reinfurt over the tail end of last week while travelling and it was good. There's not much more to say really, if you're into design, design education and design history, read it. I learned lots and found it pretty easy to engage with. So at the weekend I moved onto clearing out some open tabs. The new edition of Continent is right up the Haunted Machines alley and featured great work from Stephen Connor, Nicolas Nova, Suzanne Triester and Peter Moosgard. I also read an article by one of the editors who I hadn't come across before – Anthony Enns on Apocryphal Psychotechnologies. This was an exhaustive history of mind-reading and control devices and the narratives and pseudoscience around them propelled principally by the belief that the mind is a machine and we could read and control it with the right gizmo. 

This provided a very neat segue into Simon Niquille's lates piece for e-flux – Too Much Information. Niquille has a real talent for connecting technical, historical and political ideas around technologies and does a great job here of really hammering the technical trait of believing that 'good enough' simulation means that you can read and control perfectly. Similar to Enns' critique of mind-reading evinced by the brain as an electro-magnetic machine, Niquille describes how the logic of FACS (Facial Action Coding System) – a system used to simulate human emotions on CGI models with a series of 'universal' facial movements – evinced technologists that human emotions could similarly be discretely read from a limited available set:
These applications follow the belief that the face holds the key to truth and reveals thoughts left unspoken. [psychologist Paul] Ekman refers to micro expressions as an “involuntary emotional leakage [that] exposes a person’s true emotions.” In the case of airport screenings, automated facial expression recognition takes on a predictive function by claiming to pick up signals of future intentions. Such expectation echoes the practice of physiognomy, a pseudoscience that originated in antiquity and resurged in Europe during the late Middle Ages to assess a persons character from their outer appearance. 
I would have liked to have seen more critique of the designerly qualities of the machines that Enns' examines, similar to the work that Andrew Friend and Sitraka's 2013 Prophecy Program but I suppose that's not his remit.

Power Modes

Sometimes I think about who we are in different places. If you ask Mrs Revell she’d (probably) say that I mostly like sitting on my own in silence. That’s the kind of ‘resting state’ and then I activate other states for other situations. When I’m in situations where I don’t know anyone or know very few people I seem to have two wildly different states: Either sit-at-the-back, hide in the shadows and crack on with work on the laptop (let’s call this low power mode) or everyone here is interesting, talk to them all, learn about them, soak it up (high power mode). And then I end up thinking – well which one am I really, given no external conditions? I’m not faking being interested in talking to other people or learning about them, their lives and concerns, and we all enjoy the feeling that comes with people giving you their time and attention. Then I’m resentful of the times I don’t make the most of the opportunities to meet new people and learn new things, and sit at the back and hide but also feel safe. 

When I was up in Edinburgh last week I was definitely in high power mode and it was great. I suppose I wonder if there are specific starting conditions or triggers that I can proactively make sure are in place to make sure I get into that mode and make the most of these opportunities. At LCC I’m almost always entirely in that mode but then I already know most people who work in that building and they’re all super interesting so it’s quite comfortable. Anyway, it was fortuitous to listen to David Mitchell on the Adam Buxton podcast while tidying the flat (it’s an old one, I’m playing catch up between bouts of Islamic philosophy) talking about how he deals with small talk as a relatively new parent:
It’s not like I mean to be unfriendly, but I don’t mean to be friendly enough and that is being unfriendly and maybe it’s better that everyone expect me to be unfriendly and then they won’t try and talk to me. Then I can be friendly with my actual friends who know what I’m like and I’m less shy with them and so I will talk to them but I haven’t really got the energy or concentration or courage to be a normal chatty guy. Just generally.
He was referring specifically to small talk at the ‘school gates’ which I suppose I’m unfamiliar with but I am familiar with forced social proximity from other things (cursed ‘networking’ sessions at conferences being a chief culprit or large group meals with people I don’t know) and in those situations the triggers are definitely fired off to go into low power mode. I think when I can’t control, direct or structure the social circumstances I go low power mode: I have to be in that space for a certain amount of time and with a pre-ordained set of people and there’s no control over that. I think I go high power mode when I get to set the rules, chiefly; I can always walk away. There’s much less risk involved if you’re setting at least some of the terms of the social interactions. Mitchell wraps up this line of thought with the specifics of his career:
What I like about being a comedian and performing in general is that there are occasions where you have to be energised and think and in certain situations be chatty – I’m trying to be chatty now. But you sort of know, while doing it, that that’s part of a certain discrete project and the when that project ends you can go back to being unfriendly and morose and quiet. You know, it’s nice to put on an ironed shirt and have a wash but it’s also nice not to have to be just generally ‘clean’
I remember saying to Wes once (when he was spending every day in silence on his own working on his PhD) that I often don’t want to socialise because I spend all day in meetings and talking or teaching and lecturing and being enthusiastic, and energised and trying to bring people along with me with their own ideas and energy and it’s exhausting. So, when I’m not doing that I just like to sit in quiet on my own. I guess it’s a similar thing.

Things I learned this week

  • I learned about the Royal Game of Ur which, when you think about the longevity of games (or even specific artefacts) is kind of remarkable. Invented in the early third millenia in Mesopotamia, spread across most of the Indo-European world and beyond up until late antiquity (500 AD-ish in Europe). I like the way the rules were learned; an astronomer from Babylon wrote a tablet to his Greek friends with a more complex variation on the game from which modern scholars were able to reverse engineer the standard rules. 
  • I really liked this article which is from a few years back but seems a bit ever green. Basically, people can say mean things, not because they're mean but that's just how we build social bonds. I deleted my 'small' (read: private) Twitter account a few years ago because I didn't like how mean it was. I don't like being mean to people who aren't in the room (not to say I can't be mean to people to their face) I didn't really learn anything there but it's a nice articulation of the vicious joy of being mean on the Internet.