Between Con and Conjure: Thoughts on the Interface

Below is a copy of the text (and accompanying slides) of the presentation I gave at the Annual Meeting of the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts (#SLSA13). The paper, entitled “Between Con and Conjure: Thoughts on the Interface”, was part of a panel I coordinated with Patricia Clough, Josh Scannell, and Benjamin Haber. The panel was titled “Big Data and the Call of the Inhuman: Towards an Alien Theory of Liveliness” and took place on Friday, October 4, 2013.

This paper is part of a larger reflection that I’ve been doing on my own work, which took place as a long-term ethnography among a group esoteric, psychic practitioners—and the work that I have been doing with Patricia Clough, Josh Scannell, and Benjamin Haber and what we have been loosely calling “The Life of Things”, which took up issues of objects, new materialism, and eventually data itself. (Our reading archive for anyone interested can be found here.)

My interest in our work together has been to understand the ways in which new data architectures, or “big data”, are terra-forming day-to-day sociality, as well as our ways of understanding how the world operates, what’s possible (and also not possible, particularly when think of a politics here), and the ways in which algorithmic structures or algorithmic potential are bringing about a dark sort of enchantment, a police-state enchantment, a corporate enchantment, a “credito-normative” enchantment. This dark enchantment, to me, has deep implications for questions of life itself and for where and how biopolitical boundaries will be drawn, redrawn, and enforced in tandem with the “big data” sensibility that “borders” or “boundaries” have withdrawn, by which I mean that boundaries are coming to be understood as immanent to a terrain, continually being reformulated in relation to “an interface”, which borrowing from Celia Lury, we can understand as a frame for simultaneous capture and redeployment.

Given my work, which was in a way haunted by con artistry (Psychic practitioners have a bad rap, we might say) “big data” algorithms architectures– with their smoothing of interfaces and social logics of the derivative— have often drawn my mind to the simultaneous conjuration and con afoot in this new empiricism. And, in order to think about this con in the conjure, I started to think of “big data” as a form of a trickster—a folk notion that we’ve really all but lost—but a spirit or even a “God” that can move to between worlds of living and dead, of matter and non-matter– Indeed a trickster is often inventive, creative, generative and can blur these very boundaries.

So, let me tell you a little bit about Hermes because, in this paper, I would like to make the argument the movements at play in this emerging “big data” sociality—the very movement of the derivative, the very algorithmic rhythms themselves, the captures and redeployment of the interface– can be thought of as “Hermetic movements” or trickster movements. Here, I do not mean Hermes Trismegistus, (or the “thrice great Hermes” whose written works form the basis for what is known as the Hermetic Corpus or Hermeticism), but rather the God Hermes (who the Romans will recast as Mercury.) Because the histories between these two figure are murky at best (Wouter Hannegraft suggests that Trismegistus could be the grandson of the God Hermes) and because these figures will also get entangled with the Egyptian god “Thoth”, I want to to sketch out a image of Hermes the God.

In the Homeric Hymns, Hermes is describes as one “of many shifts (polytropos), blandly cunning, a robber, a cattle driver, a bringer of dreams, a watcher by night, a thief at the gates, one who was soon to show forth wonderful deeds among the deathless gods.” Hermes is the god of transitions, *of boundaries.* He is the interpreter of the gods, an intercessor, and conductor of souls to the afterlife. As Hannegraf (2006) writes, “he was the son of Zeus and Maia, born on Mount Cyllene. The name Hermes derived from the heaps of stones (herma, hermaion) that served as landmarks. From the earliest times, Hermes had been the god who guided and protected the wayfarer. Originally a squared ithyphallic pillar with a head, his image became gradually more anthropomorphic, which resulted in his most well-know representation, with winged sandals, a staff (or caduceus), and his characteristic traveler’s hat. Herms were set up at crossroads, on market places, at the gateways of cities and the borders of estates. As god of the road he also became the god who guided the dead to the underworld, which became a popular literary motif but had firm roots in ordinary life.”

Hermes, the cleverest of the gods, became a god of both merchants AND thieves. A trickster god, an inventive god and according, again to Hannegraaf, because of his ability to interpret the will of the gods, Plato linked Hermes with both “positive and the negative power of speech (Cratylus, 407e-408b).” Later, Hermes would be become identical with the Logos and even became the creator of the world. The Gnostics would go on to honor Hermes as the Logos, ‘because he is the interpreter (hermèneus) and creator (dèmiourgos) of everything that has come into being, that comes into being and that will come into being.’
So, we here see a figure that can move between world, between life and death, who can play tricks on mortals, often robbing them, misleading, while guiding them, marking boundaries, marking roads, indeed coming eventually to be considered an ultimate generative power—the LOGOS—both interpreter and creator—a big data god if we will—shaping and in-forming the “will” or spirit of the Gods. And, I realize there is a lot we could talk about here, but I want to stay with it is actually the notion of “Hermes’ movement”, his fleet-footedness, his transgressive movement, and to think about what is moving or being moved or made valuable in the movements of these big data algorithmic structures.

I want to show you briefly a clip of this video; perhaps some of you have seen it. This is a video of high-speed financialized trading… and the video is just “one half-second of trading in just one stock, boring old Johnson & Johnson, on May 2. The video slows down the trades so that the milliseconds — thousandths of a second — tick slowly by, and so that human eyes can comprehend what’s happening”

… because surely, Hermes is still the god of merchants AND thieves, a god truly honored by the rise of financialized (or fictitious) capital immediately valorizing itself—Marx’s vampire of dead labor is actually quite lively, spasmodic, dynamic, rhythmic, derivative, and entrancing. If time has been money, speed, as Virilio writes, is “power.” Yet, it is not just the speed of movement at play in big data, but also a very specific kind of a movement, which I am calling a trickster movement” in it that seemingly assembles, captures… and deploys almost simultaneously. It is, to be sure, a conjuring movement, but for the remainder of time I would like about what it the nature of the con in such conjuring.

If we look to derivatives themselves— which as Randy Martin writes are technically “contracts to exchange a certain amount of something at a determinate future time at an agreed-upon price”— we start to see that “contract” is has less to with “rational human actors” engaged in buying and selling, but rather a dynamic “assembling” movement. As Martin writes, the derivative “serves as a kind of shuttle between the particular risk factors it bundles together and the general glare of optimum market performance as an imaginary horizon that the measure is subject to. As opposed to the fixed relation between part and whole that informs the system metaphysic, the derivative acts as the movement between these polarities that are rendered unstable through its very contestation of accurate price and fundamental value — in effect the truth of the commodity and that of the market which economy served to bind together.”

As we suggested in the paper that we co-authored, Big Data relies on what Martin has called a “social logic of the derivative.” And perhaps the best way to understand the derivative as “social logic” is to consider the words of Gus Hunt, the chief technology office for the CIA who has proclaimed that social media, mobile technologies, and cloud computing have already been married to the “unbounded, promiscuous, and indiscriminate” capacities of nanotechnology, biotechnology, and sensor technology. Via this queer marriage, Hunt proclaimed, “it is nearly within our grasp to compute all human generated information” and that human beings are now “walking sensor platforms” generating endless seas of data. How to find “a signal” amidst all this “noise”, suggested Hunt, is only one of the challenges posed by such a world. While the scale of this emergent data is often simply referred to as “big”, it is not necessarily the scale that troubles the Intelligence agency. Rather, it is the speed with which data can now be collected through ubiquitous computation, as well as the adaptive dynamism of the algorithm itself that is troubling and challenging a sense of how the world can or could operate. Such speed and dynamism is allowing, as Hunt suggested, for the “inanimate to become sentient.” As algorithmic architectures and cognitive machines come to play a greater role in the parsing of the data, technology is felt to move faster than both institutions and humans. As Hunt seemed to resign himself to, “it’s all about speed… that’s all that matters in our world.”

Yet, it is not all about speed, it also about the idea of conjuring patterns from this complexity… or of making a Hermetic movement between worlds of human, non-human, spirit, matter, and energy, reassembling, inventing, and generating. Here is might worth noting that the Hermes mother was Maia, whose name means “midwife”, one who helps birth, and who in some traditions was linked to the cult of the Cybele or the Magna Mater, or the Great Mother. Hermes, as her son, carries with him his mother’s generativity, but has turns that capacity into a great cunning. As Hermes moves, fleet-footed, he robs, he is “immoral like a baby”, outwitting gods and mortal for his own satisfaction. His generativity is a conjuration mingled with persuasion and deception.

Which leads me finally to this notion of the con— or the production of one reality over and above the probable outcome of another reality. In big data, we see the abounding of interfaces to both capture and seek pattern, one over another, over another, selecting assemblages of complex data points over other complexes of data. While Big Data works on continual feedback loops to grow “smart” in the face of such complexity, to the me interface is essential the con—it is a cut or as Celia Lury suggests, a frame of mediation. In such framing, it is a cut that ultimately in-forms one outcome over another. While the vast deployment of interfaces may, on the one hand, appear as large-scale conjuration, even enchantment, as I suggested when I began, and while algorithmic computation would like to see itself as synonymous with a project of “worlding”, the reminder of Hermes suggests that such conjuration is always haunted by a playful reorganizing “con” or trickery, which sits at the very heart of interface.

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