External Rewards

A lot of bloggish buzz has surrounded Jesse Schell’s DICE 2010 lecture and his commitment to external rewards ‘dystopia’ future, highlighted in the talk below.

Schell’s vision is pretty Utopian and stark. In the same way that video designers design algorithms to control how players ‘play’ a particular videogame, Schell is convinced that similar forms of external reward will play a part in helping us for the good, (i.e. he uses the example that if toothbrushes contained a sensor which ‘knew’ when we brushed our teeth twice a day, we would gain "200 points" which could be put towards dental insurance incentives). In other words, we can’t be trusted to live our lives properly, and instead we might as well submit to health and enviroment issues through the lure of an external reward.

Now before we get all Children of Men or Brazil, I’m convinced this won’t be the case, for a couple of reasons. The first is largely ideological, as brilliantly argued by Sirlin,

"I urge you to be vigilant against external rewards. Brush your teeth because it fights tooth decay, not because you get points for it. Read a book because it enriches your mind, not because your Kindle score goes up. Play a game because it’s intellectually stimulating or relaxing or challenging or social, not because of your Xbox Live Achievement score. Jesse Schell’s future is coming. How resistant are you to letting others manipulate you with hollow external rewards?"

I don’t think Schell’s future is coming, I’m becoming more and more convinced that game companies, social networking sites, iphone apps, Facebook games and online indie flash games are implementing reward systems into their platform and game design, but this will become largely an issue in the games and entertainment industry not the wider social field as Schell anticipates.

Secondly, I’m pretty confident that sensory technologies will not become disposable in regular household items; its getting cheaper, but not as cheap as Schell believes, certainly not enough to start sticking sensory equipment in a box of Kelloggs, or an orange juice carton. Even if companies start trying to offer external reward incentives through smart mobile phones or cameras, how exactly would these points reward customers? Xbox 360 Achievements work because the platform was built as a social networking tool anyway, even if it was unexpected result for Microsoft. Toothbrushes and buses are not built in this way, and besides the incentives would have to match the startup costs. 

A point which Schell ignores, (and even worse he blindingly accepts) is that we are "psychologically" going to fall for it, mostly from the financial evidence from Facebook games. Like I said, it may work for video-game domains, and maybe in the domains of visiting foursquare hotspots across New York, but I doubt it’ll work in the global way Schell adheres. To wield an added meta-competition element amongst videogames is understandable, as most videogames (multiplayer or otherwise) contain significant levels of algorithm/reward in their syntax. However thinking this syntax applies to eating cereal or walking to work, is slightly dubious.



When an artist constructs or expropriates a particular algorithm, natural language, code, machine or any other procedural invention, where do we locate expression?

Certainly we can state that artworks written in programmed code (usually Object-oriented), addresses certain issues of artistic authorship. Much has been written, and a couple of exhibitions (Generator) have discussed these types of artworks and their ‘self generating nature’. Their inherent unpredictable nature which can arise from a simple sets of rules, has obvious ties to complexity theory, but it also has ties to the ideas surrounding artifical life. They could offer themselves as allegorical examples of the systems and networks which offer the contemporary cultural ‘situation’. In another way, the artist and the instruction, (or the machine), work in partnership to demolish the art object. Similarly if the artist authored the instruction, then whatever is produced (even if it is complex disorder) could be considered the artist’s intention, this is the view of the early pioneers in Algorithmic Art in the early 70s, (or as they like to call themselves Algorists, following the term’s origins in Islamic mathematics)

My thesis questions these assumptions, and asks ‘what is the expression of the instruction itself?’ What does the program itself experience and does it offer express itself, radically different from human expression? Questioning it’s narrow human use only allows us to embrace of aesthetics for us and not an aesthetics of instruction. 

Bogost on Achievements

Bogost lets loose on the lamentable Achievement culture of contemporary gaming today. He compares the Xbox Live Achievements to Loyalty Points such as Air Miles or city-explorer social network tools, such as FourSquare.

I’ve talked about this before in Bristol, and I believe what this loyalty marketing scheme leads to is a double edged sword ; on one hand it encourages gamers to dig deep into games and play in ways which they wouldn’t play, on the other hand it also encourages die-hard achievement fans to play badly designed games which are popular on account of their notoriously easy achievements. Games aren’t especially played here, just consumed for points.   

Bogost highlights the question; Loyalty to Who or What? The company? The game? The Social network of friends in competition? The game portrayed in real life a la FourSquare? My questions are slightly on the critical side of the developers. To the achievement minded player, achievements largely control their playing habits. In what way do developers control these types of players?

So what is this all about then?

Welcome to Algorithm and Contingency.

I’m Robert Jackson. This is a WorkBlog I’ve designed to keep my PhD thesis all in order. The navigation button on the top are classic catagories, identified by most academics involved in the arts.

Whats the title all about? Well the thesis is researching into artists, art practioners and artworks which use algorithms as the core mechanism to either generate an aesthetic image/object or deploy the mechanism itself as the art. Although the term ‘algorithmic art’ (and sometimes as its known, ‘Runtime’ artworks) can be useful for describing these works, software art, systems art may also qualify here as an executing operational thing. Hopefully it is my intention to use the term algorithm quite generally in all modes of instruction and execution.

Contingency is used to describe the outward relational effect of algorithms in a general way. The explicit outcome or ‘effect’ of an algorithm’s execute-ability is contingent on the beholder of the work, and following the philosopher Graham Harman, the beholder need not be of human origin.  For me, "Contingency" is a better term than, say, accidental, as it occurs outside the realm of algorithm, it is something the instruction cannot quite control. Like Harman’s idea of object oriented ‘allure’, aesthetics will tread on the toes of science in an attempt to map the interior contours of simple things.


Its here!!

Used TypePad – not enough control, as much as I like typepad, just hated not having enough control.

Then I decided to stick with Six Apart and use their blogging platform Movable Type. Excellent service, used it before, however Six Apart have shot themselves in the foot a bit since I last used Movable Type V3, they are now onto V5 which is an absolute bastard to install onto my server.

Rejected, I thought I’d try and be clever and deliberately hack into some awful web hosting software to make a point as well as a stable platform. Whats the most awful, limiting web development hosting software available? Thats right iWeb!! Good old Apple, first it giveth and taketh away in equal measure. For those who don’t know iWeb, like all Apple products its designed to be phenomenally powerful whilst retaining accessibility. Like anything "i…." it does simple things without giving the user prior access to the platform code. iWeb is no different, you literally don’t see the XHTML and Javascript until you publish, also to actually do anything tangible with it you need to pay for MobileMe  Horrible for most, opportunity for me (I thought), After some tries hacking into FTP source code, I realised there was no point to this.

Finally… we have the good old fashioned WordPress blogging platform. I actually prefer Movable Type in many ways (static blog pages are just easier to maintain and edit), and if Six Apart actually relax their hosting specifications then I’ll reconsider. For now WordPress does the job and has more support, I’ve just got to re-figure php now, and I’m not the best at that.