Monthly Archives: November 2013

Post Digital Liveness in Software

Latest version

Post Digital Liveness in Software

“Software has become our interface to the world, to others, to our memory and our imagination”  (Manovich)

Since the invention of the Internet and World Wide Web, data is massively generated, consumed, manipulated, reproduced and circulated in the network culture. The demand of real time delivery of data is tremendously high through ubiquitous software; these can be seen especially in developed cities such as London and Hong Kong. Browsing online data, such as news with text and images, through a mobile browser; communicating with peers through what’s app and Facebook/Twitter become part of everyday life activity. Software has permeated in everyday life from physical to networked environments. It can be situated in a physical mobile device and computer, but also can be available on the Internet such as social media applications. Functions that have been built in software, together with network technologies, have made the increasing demand of instantaneity become possible.  One could access or interface the world instantly, getting close to events that are happening in other part of the city, and even remotely connects to the world.  These experiences of proximity and immediacy through screen representations, which is manifested via technology, have been constituted to the understanding of liveness (Scannell 84; Zemmels; Bourdon 532).

Likewise, the notion of liveness has been expressed in the form of digital art through the utilization of online data. Producing immediate, dynamics and unpredictable live experiences become one of the artistic representations (artworks such as Listening Post by Mark Hansen and Ben Rubin, eCLOUD by Aaron Koblin, Hefermaas and Dan Goods, The Ryhthm of City by Mar Canet and Varvara Guljajeva).

Audiences can be easily noticed the live-happenings through the manifestation of artist’s software. But in the post-digital discourse, how do the concepts of imperfect digital process (Ian, 2000) or even technological failure (Cascone, 2000) might provide an alternative understanding of liveness? This essay tries to open up the discussion through an artistic research and practice, with a focus to examine the technical and political digital processes that shape an artwork. Ian suggests post-digital approach is not to examine functions and “mundane tasks” of the software application, but to think about processes “as a combination of the material processes”. In my articulation of post-digital approach in this specific context of art, including both network and software, I would like to put forward post-digital liveness is realized through examining “material substrate”, that is the black box of the software and its related software code support; rather to analyze the representation of the artwork and its reception from audiences.

An overview of (digital) liveness

The notion of liveness that I refer to here is associated with technology and is situated in a digital environment. The term ‘liveness’ has been widely used in various media and performance contexts to describe the actual happening of events, and is often tied to the reception of audiences via data representation. For example, watching a live broadcast programme, in the form of audio and visual, via a television; reading an Internet post, in the form of text and image in the Facebook application, via a mobile device. The experience and feeling of liveness have been discussed in former literatures (Auslander; Scannell; Zemmels).

Theorist Auslander argues that liveness is a contingent term due to the change of technological environment. His concept of liveness is fundamentally grounded on recording technologies, in which “the live can be defined only as that which can be recorded” and “the live is actually an effect of mediatization” (56).  As such, the feeling or experience of liveness is being manipulated by technology. Derrida and Stiegler remind that ‘live’ in any transmission that is based on recording technologies is never live, instead, it is artificially transformed audiences’ perception and experience via constant manipulation (40). These technologies enable a proximal relationship establish towards a source event, the sensation of presence at a remote environment that is happening or has been happened at other time and space. The representation of data “can powerfully produce the effect of being-there, of being involved (caught up) in the here-and-now of the occasion” (Scannell 84).

Within the domain of the Internet, Zemmels argues the notion of presence is substantially intensified due to a shorter retrieval time of accessing specific data within a larger amount of information. Considering video streaming nowadays whereby data is stored in servers and databases, machine codes and real time network technology allow selected data to be reproduced, manipulated and streamed as live. Zemmels’ notion of presence constitutes the experience of “immediacy” and “intimacy” through instant delivery and connection over distance.

In fact, the demand of instant delivery that Gere describes as instantaneity is permeated in digital culture (1). Using real time technology to deliver data has become one of the important features in all sorts of technological artifacts. Parisi defines real time as follow:

“The capacity of software of media technologies to retrieve information live, and to allow this information to add new data to programming. Real-time technologies can be only understood in terms of the ‘aliveness’ of data” (266).

The real time manipulation and transmission of data is live itself insofar as liveness implies a capacity to transmit and deliver a message “as it happens” (Marriott 69). Liveness can be examined through detaching from content when it just points towards to a live transmission per se (Bourdon 534).

The ‘movement’ of data in a transmission process consists not only active technical transmission flows from one side to the other, but also socio-cultural process.  Indeed, data production comes with ideologies, reflecting present culture, thinking, beliefs, interactions and daily living. These are embedded and synthesized in produced content, for instance, the production of a reality TV show or the posted picture on Facebook. As Feuer discusses the representation of content “is a reflection of the living, constantly changing present” (13) and therefore, it is always in a state of becoming and the perceived present has always been mediated. Liveness is an ideology, promoting a sense of current happening.

Moving into post-digital liveness

Another recent perspective of liveness discourse is to look into the matters of life. Pugliese uses the word “liveness test”, denoting “a sign of life” and the presence of a human body in the context of biometric systems of identification (Pugliese 118). The term “liveness detection” is used in a similar fashion (Tan & Schuckers). In 2011, Transmediale Festival conducted a conference BODY:RESPONSE – Biomedial Politics in the Age of Digital Liveness, it suggested that networked environments and technology have been shifting the understanding of living body from biological to the “social and political” body, which is extended from online society. Technology governs social body and social relations through online platforms, communication devices and application gadgets.  The way on how a body connects to society is dramatically expanded through social practices in online environments. The use of contemporary philosophy of biopolitics is also seen in various scholars’ writing (Pasquinelli; Liu; Parikka; Karppi; Munster), opening up critical perspectives between politics and networked body.  In the context of digital liveness, biopolitics, draws upon Foucauldian discourse analysis, is about digital life (such as life expectancy and health condition of a network/artifact/software), regulatory controls, social relations, production, reproduction and population. Parikka discusses liveness in the context of software-based art archives, in which the documentation represents the “living environment”(124) of a particular moment of time. Therefore, the understanding of liveness is also exposed to the nonhuman body discussion.

This article uses my collaborative artwork as a case study to open up discussions on the biopolitics of post-digital liveness, which is not on a human body but on a digital networked body. It is a piece of software connects to a network platform Facebook. However, the artwork is intended not to address on well-functioned, perfect and promising qualities and representations. As post-digital concerns the imperfect or what Ian would describe as “flaws inherent in digital processes”, post-digital liveness is, indeed, to investigate the digital life process that leads to software flaw, which is also similar to Cascone’s notion of ‘failure’: “bugs, application errors [and] system crashes”.

Liveness: The representational experience through the screen

In this article, a small application software is made collaboratively by Helen Pritchard and I, and is commissioned by Arnolfini. The artwork The likes of Brother Cream Cat is a browser add-on that provides an augmented browsing experience of Facebook through traces of a Facebook famous cat, Brother Cream in Hong Kong, investigating the social process between developer’s software and the online social media platform Facebook.

In 2011 “Brother Cream Cat” was lost on the street and his fans created a Facebook fan page to find him, and on his return he became ‘Facebook Famous’ through his ‘lots of likes’ (Soon & Pritchard). Brother Cream Cat’s attraction permeates in both physical and digital live network. Since his lost and found, he engages over 1000 first time and revisit fans per day at his store and has accumulated with more than 150,000[1] likes on his Facebook fans page. The likes becomes an instrument, as well as a starting point, to sustain his well being by attracting more visitors (both online and offline), more merchandised products, more cat food and more job opportunities for this animal celebrity, Brother Cream.

An add-on is developed to intervene the Facebook browsing behavior in real time. Once audiences have installed and activated the add-on, the small software then runs on a browser, all the existing Facebook’s image data (including images of any post, the profile and timeline area) are replaced with the latest available Brother Cream trace (See image 1). When he/she visits Brother Cream fan page particularly, all the cats’ images that are uploaded by his fans are overlaid with a customized line of text (see image 2); and the tailored text and audio respond instantly once the like/unlike button of a Cream Cat’s post is clicked.  As such, the add-on intervenes the usual behavior of browsing and using Facebook through a custom-made software. The add-on offers a real time augmented browsing experience. The image data on Facebook is constantly mutating and the live trace is participating actively in human social interaction through real time technology, including the network and software. The liveness of Brother Cream is experienced through the representation of text, audio and image data, allowing instant feedback responses towards users’ click action.

Picture 6Image 1: Screen shot of The likes of Brother Cream Cat on Facebook

Picture 11 Image 2: Screen shot of The likes of Brother Cream Cat on Brother Cream fan page

Critical Code Studies: examining post digital liveness

In addition to the liveness of specific representational objects of Brother Cream Cat, the project also examines the notion of post-digital liveness from a wider cultural context through an in-depth investigation behind the screen.

The add-on is made to address the notion of liveness through continuously scraping Facebook data and intervening in the user experience of browsing Facebook in real time. However, like any other software production, the add-on could potentially malfunction, and would lead to a newer version release. In this post-digital era, one has to think beyond the polished screen and software, departing from the critical reflection of software disruption. This article, therefore, suggests that the potential malfunctioning add-on might provide an insight in rethinking liveness from the representational to socio-technical and socio-political realization, arguing that a newer software version is not simply regarded as a new fix or a new update, but it encompasses social forces which shape the post-digital liveness of a software.

To understand social forces within and around Facebook, Pritchard and I take the approach of critical code studies, initiated by Mark Marino in 2006, a method to study code itself rather then to focus on the representation, the usability or interface design of a software. Studying how the algorithm is implemented might not be necessary and according to Marino, “code itself as a cultural text worthy of analysis and rich with possibilities for interpretation”. The available Facebook code, including but not limited to source code, application programming interface (API), Facebook developers site and its documentation and the terms and conditions provide a useful way to understand the architecture of the Facebook infrastructure, as well as biopolitical implications in a border social and cultural context.

Investigating post-digital liveness: more than just technical APIs

Application programming interface (API) is a standard interface offered by Web 2.0 service providers. Developers, designers, artists and anyone can register platforms’ account and be able to retrieve services and online data via the use of API in their developed software. In particular for network art[2], arguably, there is a growing trend for artists, for example JODI, Jonathan Harris & Sep Kamvar, Jer Thorp, Shu Lea Cheang, to employ available API in their works. As such, more artistic data practices have been brought to the network art scene, and this public interface, the API, becomes the “art-making enabler” (Soon).

In Facebook, the release of API provides much broader opportunities to enhance its popularity on the Internet and sustain its business inasmuch as more third-party applications are being developed. Thus, more data pass through the API from Facebook databases, reproducing and appearing in other interfaces, and this has been known as ‘Facebook apps’. However, API should not be only considered as a tool, but has to be understood from a socio-political perspective on how providers manage or govern their data usage, encompassing a highly complex socio-technical relation.

Facebook releases their API since 2006 and developers have to comply with their rules, including from concrete to ambiguous instructions. For example, the limit of query request per day via developers’ programs, and one of the conditions marks: “Quality of content: you are responsible for providing users with a quality experience and must not confused, defraud, mislead, spam or surprise users.”[3] Clearly, the rules are set at a maximum beneficial to Facebook. In this regard, I am wondering if The likes of Brother Cream Cat surprises users, via a messy interface and bizarre interaction, as an artwork? Undoubtedly, Facebook has rights to withdraw and block the application’s access for data retrieval, and even reserved rights for any legal actions that they might take. Being a well-behaved developer, on the contrary, is guaranteed a stable delivery of data (Bucher).

Developer is in a passive position in using Facebook service to conduct data extraction, even though data is contributed by the public domain freely, and Facebook basically has the full control on granting the access and decide what data should be opened from databases and made available to public through algorithm, a technical execution of data inclusion and exclusion in this regard. All the users data fundamentally “is the sole and exclusive property of Facebook” (Lodi 242). Since all Facebook apps have to go through a registration process and under constant monitoring, in order words, Facebook is controlling what should be made available in the market, cultivating a desire and favorable apps through the labor market, and governing the whole population of developers’ community.

How could one escape from all these conformities? The likes of Brother Cream Cat is made to escape from these rituals and monitoring by using an alternative and conventional method, yet not properly verified and approved, as web scraping.

Investigating post-digital liveness: The use of web scraping technique

Before the wide availability of APIs in the late 90s that are released by Web 2.0 providers, developers or artists had to use web-scraping technique only to harvest web data. Web scraping is an automatic process of web data extraction, written by a computer scripting language, in which “specific fields or data elements [is extracted directly] from pages on the Web and other Internet sources” (Marres & Weltevrede 316). Authorization is not required, one can easily program a script and start fetching the web data, however, Marres amd Weltevrede remind the possible legality issue of web scraping as it may against its “terms of use” (320).

Marres and Weltevrede further discuss the extracted dirty web data (322) in using the Web scraping technique. The source is hardly understood without proper revealing of data schematics, and the web data collection process is “unstructured” (316) and “messy” (322). In addition, web scraping is considered as an unstable method because there are substantial changes of web interfaces and data elements from the source (Tseng 2), which impacts the apps development.

In fact, neither approaches of web scraping or API is stable. Though Facebook tries to maintain their platform stability by giving advanced notice of API code changes and offering a more comprehensive documentation and guidelines, still many developers suffer from their frequent code update. According to an online web service company[4], the related documentation and services of the Facebook API have a total of 64 changes in just 30 days. An engineer, Chunk, works in Facebook and he announces that Facebook at least update their code (not only for API but Facebook as an entire platform) in a daily basis for different enhancement purposes to sustain its entire economic activities and Facebook population.

Nevertheless, The likes of Brother Cream Cat’s add-on is expected to cope with these platform changes by continuously update the add-on software with different versions – just like any other software practice – in order to maintain the liveness and functioning of the artwork.

Software versioning: the production of software release

What makes a provider introduces a newer software release? Chunk responses that the Facebook software update provides greater software. Perhaps, it can be understood as “greater” interfaces, “greater” functions and “greater” stability to drive Facebook business, keeping users and expanding possible online connections. Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, highlights, “we work to bring the next five billion people online and into the knowledge economy”[5]. Therefore, Facebook population is foreseeable to expand continuously. Given the advertising revenue with a 66% increment from 2012 to 2013, it is understood the direct and inter-related forces that exist between healthy (active) users, business relation and monitoring system of Facebook. Every new update of the software can be seen as a production in the world of capitalism. It is an economic process yet exists in a technical practice of code release, controlling the network population in relation to the machinery of production. In other words, the software signifies “a power to foster life” (Foucault 138) and entangles with the optimization of efficiency and effectiveness that directs the engaging forces from macro interactions among advertisers, technology and users to micro individual behaviors. Post-digital liveness includes hidden forces that foster life. In the context of software, it is the continuation of keeping the smooth running of it. Hence, prolonging the active connectivity in a socio-political dimension.

In fact, these software changes have been commonly seen in nowadays software culture such as hotfixes or security updates from operating systems, and software updates from other different kinds of applications. The reasons behind ranges from protecting security and privacy of users, to the offering of better experiences, features and functions. Arguably, one of the hidden agenda for software companies is to implement a range of mechanisms to reinforce the controlling, monitoring and optimizing via data tracking. Facebook is one of the examples that actively analyze user behaviors, such as tracking users’ cursors on screen behavior that has been reported by New York Times[6] in 2013. As such, software should also be considered as a control apparatus, with power that exercises on individual live connection -as life- through the black box of algorithms. These micro tracking techniques are implemented down to individual level that drives potential consumption. All these controls are hidden but integrate in the normal release of software that offers an uncompleted and distorted picture to its members. According to Foucault, the notion of life is biopolitical and consists of disciplinary power that is “centered on the body as a machine”. He explains the power as:

“its disciplining, the optimization of its capabilities, the extortion of its forces, the parallel increase of its usefulness and its docility, its integration into systems of efficient and economic controls, all this was ensured by the procedures of power that characterized the disciplines” (p.139).

Social Reproduction via APIs: extension of life via third-party production

As a production platform, Facebook’s population includes not only healthy users who frequently and actively engage with Facebook from a user perspective, but also those external communities who participate in developing Facebook apps. API is one of the ways in which Facebook extends its active user population through third-party applications. Facebook offers a comprehensive guidelines and interfaces of APIs, facilitating the reproduction of users data and the production of “Facebook apps” in a creative way. This is how Hardt and Hergri would describe as biopower, “a situation in which … power is the production and reproduction of life itself” (24). For example, a mobile app Candy Crush Saga has implementing a life system, when players have used up all their default maximum number of given lives, lives are able to restore by asking Facebook friends for help. This social interaction of getting extra lives have been implemented via the Facebook API by posting a request message on a friend’s wall within the app, as well as accepting the help message by the player’s friend, then Facebook will inform the app of getting extra lives to continue the game play. As a result, the social reproduction is made possible via third-party software.

Accessing to Facebook databases with the API is motivating to developers, it immediately creates network of relations via individual behavior, for instance, the actions of like, post or share. Gerlitz and Helmond would describe this as “interconnected” (7) network relation, whereby Facebook data keep circulate among network of networks exponentially.  They point out that Facebook is intentionally implemented in their business as part of Zuckerberg’s agenda, which is “to build a more comprehensive map of connections and create better, more social experiences for everyone”[7]. Thus, this social reproduction is in conjunction with wealth and desire, producing “subjectivities” like “needs, social relations, bodies, and minds” (Hardt & Hegri 32). In view of a socio-technical and socio-political context, API is contributing to the liveness of both developer’s software and Facebook platform. To Facebook, these new relations are enriching the entire business of Facebook. Apps user will be recruited and attracted through third-party software and hence, affecting the dynamics of Facebook population.

Nevertheless, third party applications have to keep update in order to cope with Facebook changes and to keep up with the latest technology. In 2010, Facebook announced significant changes towards the API with the introduction of Open Graph format via the Open Graph Protocol[8], this also implies the deprecating of the former “REST API”[9]. In fact, backwards compatibility or legacy support has been seen as highly time-consuming and expensive for maintenance (Bisbal et al. 103). Therefore, companies tend not take the approach of supporting both new and old systems. Facebook as one of the listed companies also has to be cost effective in growing its revenue and business. Therefore, despite new features are no longer supported in the old API format, those existing functioning features gradually removed from the Facebook platform[10] entirely. As such, developers are forced to change their software to avoid potential malfunction.

Software failure: The malfunction of The likes of Brother Cream Cat

The use of web scraping technique verses standard API though can achieve the same result as an add-on, allowing Brother Cream cat permeates in the network. However, the use of different code crafting method and language is more than a technical implementation. Indeed, code has a ‘voice’ in this artistic context to maintain the liveness of the software and escape from the regulatory control by Facebook. Cox argues machine code not only regards as an instrument for executing creative instructions, but also encloses “subjectivity and sociality” that “connects with political expression and allows for a wider understanding of power relations” (3).

Indeed, the versioning of software refers to the disappearance of old interfaces, old functions, old regulations and policies. In The likes of Brother Cream Cat, a malfunction add-on means the death of live connections to Facebook in a literal sense. Using web-scraping technique might prolong its life and escape from the disciplinary practice of Facebook, but still hardly escape from the frequent code changes and releases of the Facebook Empire. The fragility of the add-on, The likes of Brother Cream Cat, expresses the notion of post-digital liveness through the possible software failure in both a conceptual and practical level.

In this artwork, the socio-forces have the capacity to keep the artwork as well functioned and live, but also can lead to malfunction and to failure. In a wider context of software culture, the revision of software, on the one hand, providing enhanced features like an update or a fix from a technological and functional perspective; on the other hand, it also documents the changes, history and a moment of technological media environment, including but not limited to the capitalist, mainstream and commercial demand, conformity, political decisions, regulatory control and ideological practices. As such, investigating the socio-political and socio-technical forces that exist behind, and beyond, the screen representation might help to understand the constitution of post-digital liveness in software.

 //4193 words


[1] The data is gathered from the Brother Cream Cat’s Facebook fan page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/%E5%B0%96%E6%9D%B1%E5%BF%8C%E5%BB%89%E5%93%A5/117969648299869

[2] The genre of network art is usually grouped under the bigger umbrella of media art, meaning art based in or on Internet Cultures, examining the everyday medium of the Internet.

[3] See the full Facebook developers’ policy here: https://developers.facebook.com/policy/

[4] The data is collected as of 25 Nov 2013 through the website: https://www.apichangelog.com/api/facebook

[5] See the statement appears in the “Facebook Reports Third Quarter 2013 Results” here: http://investor.fb.com/releasedetail.cfm?ReleaseID=802760

[6] See the news report, Facebook Tests Software to Track Your Cursor on Screen, here: http://blogs.wsj.com/cio/2013/10/30/facebook-considers-vast-increase-in-data-collection/

[8] See the post- Building the Social Web Together here: https://www.facebook.com/notes/facebook/building-the-social-web-together/383404517130

[9] See the details of the deprecated REST API here: https://developers.facebook.com/blog/post/616/

[10] See the Facebook developer roadmap here: https://developers.facebook.com/roadmap/completed-changes/

////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////

Version 1: older version

Behind the social network: Rethinking liveness in software

“Software has become our interface to the world, to others, to our memory and our imagination”  (Manovich)

Software has permeated in everyday life from physical to online networked environments, and has become ubiquitous at least in economically advanced societies. Functions that have been built in software, together with network technologies, have made the increasing demand of instantaneity through the real time delivery become possible in contemporary culture. This experience of proximity and immediacy through screen representations to the world has been constituted to the understanding of liveness.

With the increasing penetration of software in everyday life, software becomes a medium to offer live data with feedback and response through computational processes. Indeed, each software has a life expectancy-the period of time that the software is still well functioned and executed-that implies in the incremental number count through software versioning. How does software shape our understanding of liveness-the matters of live and life-that exist behind, and beyond, the screen representation? This article suggests examining liveness from two key perspectives. First, it relates to the real time data manipulation, pointing directly to the live transmission process within computational systems. The other perspective is to look into the matters of life, in particular of life expectancy, and its cultural implications of software. Using Marino’s critical code studies and coding practice, this article explores the notion of liveness in relation to software. These approaches neither about the representation and semiotics analysis of a screen nor phenomenological study, but to investigate the hidden forces that exist behind the screen.

About software

Software is broadly defined as a program with instructions that has to be run by a computer. Instructions include logics and functions such that data, parameters and their values could be manipulated. Therefore, software does not only means industry software that are available for selling, such as graphics or accounting software, but also includes software that is situated freely on the Internet such as Facebook, and software that is independently developed by artists and developers. This article focuses software that exists in networked environments.

In this article, a small application software is made to investigate the socio-technical process between developer’s software and the online social media platform Facebook. The artwork The likes of Brother Cream Cat (Soon & Pritchard) is a browser add-on that provides an augmented browsing experience of Facebook through traces of a Facebook famous cat, Brother Cream in Hong Kong.

The add-on is made to address the notion of ‘live’ through continuously scraping Facebook data and intervening in the user experience of browsing Facebook in real time. However, like any other software production, the add-on will be potentially malfunctioned and will lead to a newer version release. In this post-digital era, one has to think beyond the polished screen and software, departing from the critical reflection of software disruption. This article, therefore, suggests that the potential malfunctioning add-on might provide an insight in rethinking liveness from the representational to socio-technical and socio-political realization, arguing that a newer software version is not simply regarded as a new fix or a new update from a technical perspective, but it encompasses with social forces which shape the liveness of a software.

An overview of (digital) liveness

The notion of liveness that I refer to here is associated with technology and is situated in a digital environment. The term has been used in various media and performance contexts to describe the actual happening of events, and is often tied with the reception of audiences via data representation. Some of the related terms like live broadcasting and real time technology have been discussed extensively by various scholars (Gere; Feuer; Auslander; Donati & Prado), and characteristics of liveness, immediacy and presence for example, have been discussed in former literature (Auslander; Scannell; Zemmels).

Theorist Auslander argues that liveness is a contingent term due to the change of our technological environment. His concept of liveness is fundamentally grounded on recording technologies, in which “the live can be defined only as that which can be recorded” and “the live is actually an effect of mediatization” (56). The concept of reproducibility is not only applicable to performance art, but to wider forms of media that acquire technology, such as broadcasting in radio and television, real time technology in internet. Similarly, Derrida and Stiegler remind that ‘live’ in any transmission that is based on recording technologies is never live, instead, it is artificially transformed audiences’ perception and experience via constant manipulations (40). These technologies enable a proximal relationship establish towards an event happens; the sensation of presence at a remote environment that is happening or had been happened at other time and space. The representation of data “can powerfully produce the effect of being-there, of being involved (caught up) in the here-and-now of the occasion” (Scannell 84).

Within the domain of the Internet, Zemmels argues the notion of presence is substantially intensified due to a shorter retrieval time of accessing specific data within a larger amount of information. Consider video streaming nowadays, data is stored in servers and databases, machine codes and real time network technology allow selected data to be reproduced, manipulated and streamed instantly across regions as live. Zemmels’ notion of presence constitutes the experience of “immediacy” and “intimacy” through instant delivery and  connection over distance.

In fact, the demand of instant delivery that Gere describes as instantaneity is permeated in digital culture (1).  Using real time technology to deliver data has become of the important features in all sorts of technological artifacts. Parisi defines real time as follow:

“The capacity of software of media technologies to retrieve information live, and to allow this information to add new data to programming. Real-time technologies can be only understood in terms of the ‘aliveness’ of data” (266).

The real time manipulation and transmission of data, regardless of tv, radio or the Internet medium, is live in itself insofar as the immediacy of liveness is the capacity to transmit and deliver the message “as it happens” (Marriott 69). Likewise, Bourdon argues liveness is not a matter of the transmission content, but the live transmission itself (534). However, the ‘movement’ of data in a transmission process consists not only active technical transmission, but also socio-cultural processes. Indeed, the production of data is about present culture, ideologies and daily living, these are constantly shifting and synthesizing in the content per se. As Feuer discusses the representation of content “is a reflection of the living, constantly changing present” (13) and therefore, it is always in a state of becoming and the present is constantly being mediated. Perhaps, the transmission of data might also be considered as a live process, and liveness is always just a snapshot of a temporal and becoming moment, at the same time representing a state of being and is regarded as assemblages. “[A] combination of heterogeneous elements” (Callon and Caliskan 9) that involve the interaction between technical elements, social elements and cultural elements.

The element of biopolitics has been also seen in recent discourse of liveness, signifying the matters of life in relation to politics. In fact, contemporary philosophy of biopolitics, such as the articulation from Giorgio Agamben and Hardt & Hegri, is largely based on Michel Foucault’s series of writing in the 1970s. His concept of biopolitics is based on the correlation of biological body and life, governmental technologies and sovereign power within a political context. But it gets to extend from a physical living body to a wider network and social body (Parikka; Berardi) that fit into contemporary digital culture and the online neoliberal environmental governance.  In the context of digital liveness, biopolitics is about digital life (such as life expectancy and health condition of a network/artifact/software), regulatory controls, social relations, production, reproduction and population. It becomes a critical approach to reprehend the phenomena and politics of Internet culture (Pasquinelli; Liu; Parikka, Karppi; Munster). As such, liveness points directly to the matters of life and politics rather than audiences’ experience and perception, nor the fact of the transmission and interaction within a computational system.

The liveness of the animal celebrity, Brother Cream Cat

Liveness: The representational experience

This article introduces a network art project, The likes of Brother Cream Cat (2013), that addresses liveness from a socio-technical perspective. It is an add-on that functions on Facebook browsing, and is the most current collaborative and artistic production of Helen Pritchard and Winnie Soon. In 2011 “Brother Cream Cat” was lost on the street and his fans created a Facebook fan page to find him, and on his return he became ‘Facebook Famous’ through his ‘lots of likes’ (Soon & Pritchard). Brother Cream Cat’s attraction permeates in both physical and digital live network. Since his lost and found, he engages over 1000 first time and revisit fans per day at his store and has accumulated with more than 150,000[1] likes on his Facebook fans page. The likes becomes an instrument, as well as a starting point, to sustain his well being by attracting more visitors (both online and offline), more merchandised products, more cat food and more job opportunities for this animal celebrity, Brother Cream. These entanglements have made apparent through the artists’ strategy of ‘likes’ exaggeration and intervention.

The add-on is developed to intervene the Facebook browsing behavior in real time. Once audiences have installed and activated the add-on, the small software then runs on a browser, all the existing Facebook’s image data (including images of any post, the profile and timeline area) is replaced with the latest available Brother Cream trace (See image 1). When he/she visits Brother Cream fan page particularly, all the cat’s images that are uploaded by his fans are overlaid with a customized line of text (see image 2); and the tailored text and audio respond instantly once the like/unlike button of a Cream Cat’s post is clicked.  As such, the add-on intervenes the usual behavior of browsing and using Facebook through a custom-made software. The add-on offers a real time augmented browsing experience. The image data on Facebook is constantly mutating and the live trace is participating actively in human social interaction through real time technology, including the network and software. The liveness of Brother Cream is made apparent through the representation of text, audio and image data, allowing instant feedback responses towards users’ click action.

Picture 6Image 1: Screen shot of The likes of Brother Cream Cat on Facebook

Picture 11 Image 2: Screen shot of The likes of Brother Cream Cat on Brother Cream fan page

Critical Code Studies: examine software liveness

In addition to the liveness of specific representational objects of Brother Cream Cat, the project also examines the notion of software liveness from a wider cultural context through an in-depth investigation behind the screen. To understand social forces within and around Facebook, the artists take the approach of critical code studies, initiated by Mark Marino in 2006, a method to study code itself rather then to focus on the representation, the usability or interface design of a software. Studying how the algorithm is implemented might not be necessary and according to Marino, “code itself as a cultural text worthy of analysis and rich with possibilities for interpretation”. The available Facebook code, including but not limited to source code, application programming interface (API), Facebook developers site and its documentation and the terms and conditions provide a useful way to understand the architecture of the Facebook infrastructure as well as biopolitical implications in a border social and cultural context.

More than just technical APIs

Application programming interface (API) is a standard interface offered by Web 2.0 service providers. Developers, designers, artists and anyone can register platforms’ account and be able to retrieve services and online data via the use of API in their developed software. In particular for network art[2], arguably, there is a growing trend for artists, for example JODI, Jonathan Harris & Sep Kamvar, Jer Thorp,  Shu Lea Cheang, to employ available API in their works. As such, more artistic data practices have been brought to the network art scene, and this public interface, the API, becomes the “art-making enabler” (Soon).

In Facebook, the release of API provides much broader opportunities to enhance its popularity on the Internet and sustain its business inasmuch as more third-party applications are being developed. Thus, more data pass through the API from Facebook databases, reproducing and appearing in other interfaces, and this has been known as ‘Facebook apps’. However, API should not be only considered as a tool, but has to be understood from a social-political perspective on how providers manage or govern their data usage, encompassing a highly complex socio-technical relation.

Facebook releases their API since 2006 and developers have to comply with their rules, including from concrete instructions, for example, the number of query request per day via developers’ program and the availability of an explicit ‘log out’ option in the apps’ interface, to vague conditions. One of the conditions marks: “Quality of content: you are responsible for providing users with a quality experience and must not confused, defraud, mislead, spam or surprise users.”[3] Clearly, the rule is set at a maximum beneficial to Facebook. In this regard, I am wondering if The likes of Brother Cream Cat surprises users as an artwork? Undoubtedly, Facebook has rights to withdraw and block the application’s access for data retrieval, and even reserved rights for any legal actions that they might take. Being a well-behaved developer, on the contrary, is guaranteed a stable delivery of data (Bucher).

One thing has to remind is that developer is in a passive position in using their service even though data is contributed by the public domain freely, and Facebook basically has the full control on granting the access and decide what data should be opened from databases and made available to public through algorithm, a technical execution of data inclusion and exclusion in this regard. All the users data fundamentally “is the sole and exclusive property of Facebook” (Lodi 242). Since all Facebook apps have to go through a registration process and under constant monitoring, in order words, Facebook is controlling what should be made available in the market, cultivating a desire and favorable apps through the labor market, and governing the whole population of developers’ community.

API is one of the ways in which Facebook extends its active user population through third-party applications. These will establish social relations and utilize labors outside Facebook members through developing apps with APIs. Facebook executes a tight regulatory control but at the same time keeping Facebook platform active via relying on external labor contribution. Facebook offers a comprehensive guidelines and interfaces of APIs, facilitating the reproduction of users data and the production of “Facebook app”. This is how Hardt and Hergri would describe as biopower, “a situation in which … power is the production and reproduction of life itself” (24).

How could one escape from all these conformities? The likes of Brother Cream Cat is made to escape from these rituals and monitoring by using an alternative and conventional method, yet not properly verified and approved, as web scraping.

The use of web scraping technique

Before the wide availability of APIs in the late 90s that are released by Web 2.0 providers, developers or artists had to use web-scraping technique only to harvest web data. Web scraping is an automatic process of web data extraction, written by a computer scripting language, in which “specific fields or data elements [is extracted directly] from pages on the Web and other Internet sources” (Noortje & Esther 316). Authorization is not required, one can easily program a script and start fetching the web data, however, Noortge and Esther remind the possible legality issue of web scraping as it may against its “terms of use” (320).

Noortge and Esther further discuss the extracted dirty web data (322) in using the Web scraping technique. The source is hardly understood without proper revealing of data schematics, and the web data collection process is “unstructured” (316) and “messy” (322). In addition, web scraping is considered as an unstable method because there are substantial changes of web interfaces and data elements from the source (Tseng 2), which impacts the apps development.

In fact, neither approaches of web scraping or API is stable. Though Facebook tries to maintain their platform stability by giving advanced notice of API code changes and offering a more comprehensive documentation and guidelines, still many developers suffer from their frequent code update. According to an online web service company [4], the related documentation and services of the Facebook API have a total of 64 changes in just 30 days. An engineer, Chunk, works in Facebook and he announces that Facebook at least update their code (not only for API but Facebook as an entire platform) in a daily basis for different enhancement purposes to sustain its entire economic activities and Facebook population.

Nevertheless, The likes of Brother Cream Cat’s add-on is expected to cope with these platform changes by continuously update the add-on software with different versions – just like any other software practice – in order to maintain the liveness and functioning of the artwork. The add-on uses web scraping as opposed to Facebook API, and Brother Cream Cat permeates into the network via Facebook browsing, intervening users’ usual browsing behavior regardless of their regions and time zones. The software keep parsing the web scraped data from Cream Cat fan page, and the live traces of Brother Cream cat that appears on screen is attached with invisible social entanglements including commerce, data laws, copyright and geo/biopolitics.

Software versioning: the production and reproduction of code

The production of software release

What makes a provider introduces a newer software release? Chunk responses the Facebook software update provides greater software. Perhaps, it can be understood as “greater” interfaces, “greater” functions and “greater” stability to drive Facebook business, keeping users and expanding possible online connections. Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, highlights, “we work to bring the next five billion people online and into the knowledge economy”[5]. Therefore, Facebook population is foreseeable to expand continuously. Given the advertising revenue with a 66% increment from 2012 to 2013, it is understood the direct and inter-related forces that exist between healthy (active) users, business relation and monitoring system of Facebook. Every new update of the software can be seen as a production in the world of capitalism. It is an economic process yet exists in a technical practice of code release, controlling the network population in relation to the machinery of production. In other words, the software signifies “a power to foster life” (Foucault 138) and entangles with the optimization of efficiency and effectiveness that directs the engaging forces from macro interactions among advertisers, technology and users to micro individual behaviors. Liveness exists in a software include forces that foster life, the continuation of keeping the smooth running of it. Hence, prolonging the active connectivity in a socio-political dimension.

In fact, these software changes have been commonly seen in nowadays software culture such as hotfixes or security updates from operating systems, and software updates from other different kinds of applications. The reasons behind ranges from protecting security and privacy of users to the offering of better experiences, features and functions. Arguably, one of the hidden agenda for software companies is to implement a range of mechanisms to reinforce the controlling, monitoring and optimizing via data tracking. Facebook is one of the examples that actively analyze user behaviors, such as tracking users’ cursors on screen behavior that has been reported by New York Times[6] in 2013. As such, software should also be considered as a control apparatus, with power that exercises on individual live connection -as life- through the black box of algorithms. These micro tracking techniques are implemented down to individual level that drives potential consumption. All these controls are hidden but integrate in the normal release of software that offers an incompleted and distorted picture to its members. According to Foucault, the notion of life is biopolitical and consists of disciplinary power that is “centered on the body as a machine”. He explains the power as:

“its disciplining, the optimization of its capabilities, the extortion of its forces, the parallel increase of its usefulness and its docility, its integration into systems of efficient and economic controls, all this was ensured by the procedures of power that characterized the disciplines” (p.139).

Social Reproduction: extension of life via third-party production

As a production platform, Facebook’s population includes not only healthy users who frequently and actively engage with Facebook from a user perspective, but also those external communities who participate in developing Facebook apps. Facebook offers the API and a whole set of comprehensive guidelines, allowing developers to freely use their materials and produce an extension of Facebook in a creative way. For example, a mobile app Candy Crush Saga has implementing a life system, when players have used up all their default maximum number of given lives, lives are able to restore by asking Facebook friends for help. This social interaction of the give and take lives have been implemented via the Facebook API by posting a request message on a friend’s wall, as well as accepting the help message by a friend. Due to the availability of the API, the social reproduction is made possible via third-party software.

Accessing to Facebook databases with the API is motivating to developers, it immediately creates network of relations via individual behavior, for instance, the actions of like, post or share. Gerlitz and Helmond would describe this as “interconnected” (7) network relation, whereby Facebook data keep circulate among network of networks exponentially.  They point out that Facebook is intentionally implemented in their business as part of Zuckerberg’s agenda, which is “to build a more comprehensive map of connections and create better, more social experiences for everyone”[7]. Thus, this social reproduction is in conjunction with wealth and desire, producing “subjectivities” like “needs, social relations, bodies, and minds” (Hardt & Hegri 32). In view of a social-technical and social-political context, API is contributing to the liveness of both developer’s software and Facebook platform. To Facebook, these new relations are enriching the entire business of Facebook. Apps user will be recruited and attracted through third-party software and hence, affecting the dynamics of Facebook population.

Third party application has to keep update in order to cope with Facebook changes and to keep up with the latest technology. In 2010, Facebook announced significant changes towards the API with the introduction of Open Graph format via the Open Graph Protocol[8], this also implies the deprecating of the former “REST API”[9]. In fact, backwards compatibility or legacy support has been seen as highly time-consuming and expensive for maintenance (Bisbal et al. 103). Therefore, companies tend not take the approach of supporting both new and old systems. Facebook as one of the listed companies also has to be cost effective in growing its revenue and business. Therefore, despite new features are no longer supported in the old API format, those existing functioning features gradually removed from the Facebook platform[10] entirely. As such, developers are forced to change their software to avoid potential malfunction.

Software malfunction: The likes of Brother Cream Cat

The production of The likes of Brother Cream Cat is prepared to suffer from potential software malfunction and hence, will lead to the software update with a newer version release. The use of web scraping technique verses standard API though can achieve the same result as an add-on, allowing Brother Cream cat permeates in the network. However, the use of different code crafting method and language is more than a technical implementation. Indeed, code has a ‘voice’ in this artistic context to maintain the liveness of the software and escape from the regulatory control by Facebook. Cox argues machine code not only regards as an instrument for executing creative instructions, but also encloses “subjectivity and sociality” that “connects with political expression and allows for a wider understanding of power relations” (3).

Indeed, the versioning of software refers to the disappearance of old interfaces, old functions, old regulations and policies regardless of any reasoning behind. In The likes of Brother Cream Cat, a malfunction add-on means the death of live connections with Facebook in a literal sense. Though leaving the add-on aside, still changes and forces could be potentially acted upon the software without the interference of the artist. In other words, the liveness of this software is subject to the code changes by Facebook. Using web-scraping technique might prolong its life and escape from the disciplinary practice of Facebook, but still hardly escape from the frequent code changes and releases of the Facebook Empire.

Conclusion:

The notion of liveness that has been discussed is to move beyond representation of an artifact. In this article, liveness refers to the matters of life, the ability to maintain a live connection with others. In a technical level, it is about the real time connectivity between systems or applications. However, liveness is more than technical understanding and I have argued that it comes with other forces. In terms of thinking through the notion of software version in the context of networked environment, on the one hand, it encompasses different functions, interfaces and logics to help interacting with the world; on the other hand, it documents the social forces that alter the process of data interaction. It offers a point of departure to rethink the inclusions and exclusions from the software provider. These social forces include the notions of disciplinary practices and software ideologies. As such, investigating the socio-political and socio-technical forces that exist behind, and beyond, the screen representation help to understand the constitution of liveness in software.


[1] The data is gathered from the Brother Cream Cat’s Facebook fan page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/%E5%B0%96%E6%9D%B1%E5%BF%8C%E5%BB%89%E5%93%A5/117969648299869

[2] The genre of network art is usually grouped under the bigger umbrella of media art, meaning art based in or on Internet Cultures, examining the everyday medium of the Internet.

[3] See the full Facebook developers’ policy here: https://developers.facebook.com/policy/

[4] The data is collected as of 25 Nov 2013 through the website: https://www.apichangelog.com/api/facebook

[5] See the statement appears in the “Facebook Reports Third Quarter 2013 Results” here: http://investor.fb.com/releasedetail.cfm?ReleaseID=802760

[6] See the news report, Facebook Tests Software to Track Your Cursor on Screen, here: http://blogs.wsj.com/cio/2013/10/30/facebook-considers-vast-increase-in-data-collection/

[9] See the details of the deprecated REST API here: https://developers.facebook.com/blog/post/616/

[10] See the Facebook developer roadmap here: https://developers.facebook.com/roadmap/completed-changes/

//////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////

Works cited [incomplete + adding footnote into references]

Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. California: Stanford University Press,1998. Print.

Auslander, Philip. Liveness: Performance in a mediatized culture. 2nd ed. Oxon: Routledge, 2008. Print.

Berardi, F., 2011. Conference: BODY: RESPONSE – Biomedial Politics in the Age of Digital Liveness. Web. 31 Jul 2013. < http://www.transmediale.de/content/conference-bodyresponse-%E2%80%93-biomedial-politics-age-digital-liveness >

Bisbal, Jesus et al. Legacy Information Systems: Issues and Directions. IEEE software, 16(5), 1999 pp.103-111. Web. 27 Nov 2013. <http://csis.pace.edu/~marchese/CS775/Proj1/legacyinfosys_directions.pdf.

Bourdon, Jerome. Live television is still alive: on television as an unfulfilled promise. Media, Culture & Society, 22(5), 2000 pp.531-556.

Bucher, Taina. Objects of intense feeling: The case of the Twitter API. Computational Culture: a journal of software studies, 2013. Web. 27 Nov 2013. <http://computationalculture.net/article/objects-of-intense-feeling-the-case-of-the-twitter-api>

Caliskan, Koray and Callon, Michel. Economization, part 2: a research programme for the study of markets. Economy and Society, 39(1), 2010  pp.1-32. Print.

Cheang, Shu Lea. UKI, available at http://www.u-k-i.co/viralgame1/. 2009. Web. 27 Nov 2013.

Chuck, Rossi. Ship early and ship twice as often. Facebook. 2012. Web. 27 Nov 2013. <https://www.facebook.com/notes/facebook-engineering/ship-early-and-ship-twice-as-often/10150985860363920>

Cox, Geoff. Speaking Code: Coding as Aesthetic and Political Expression. MIT Press, 2013

Derrida, Jacques & Stiegier, Bernard. Echographies of Television: Filmed Interviews. Cambridge, Oxford, Malden: Polity Press, 2002. Print.

Donati, L. Paraguai & Prado, Gilbertto. (2001). Artistic Environments of Telepresence on the World Wide Web. Leonardo, 34(5), 2010 pp.437–442. Web. 27 Nov. 2013. <https://www.academia.edu/1062274/Artistic_environments_of_telepresence_on_the_world_wide_web.>

Feuer, Jane. The Concept of Live Television: Ontology as Ideology. In Regarding Television: Critical approaches – An anthology, ed. Ann E. Kaplan. Los Angeles: The American Film Institute, 1983. Print.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. Volume I: An Introduction. Tr. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage Books, 1978.

Gere, Charlie. Art, Time and Technology. Oxford, New York: Berg, 2006. Print.

Gerlitx, Carolin & Helmond, Anne. The Like economy: Social buttons and the data-intensive web. New Media & Society, 2013. Print.

Hardt, Michael & Hegri, Antonio. Empire. Cambirdge, Massachusetts, London: Harvard University Press, 2001. Print.

Harris, Jonathan & Kamvar, Sep. We Feel Fine, available at http://www.wefeelfine.org/  2005.

JODI. GEO GOO, available at http://geogoo.net/ 2008.

Karppi, Tero. Digital Suicide and the Biopolitics of Leaving Facebook. Slow Media, (20). 2011. Web. 27 Nov 2013.  < http://www.transformationsjournal.org/journal/issue_20/article_02.shtml>

Liu, Shih-Diing. The emergence of Internet biopolitics in China. 思想 (11), 2009 pp.57-77. Web. 27 Nov 2013.  <http://www.academia.edu/614380/_The_emergence_of_internet_biopolitics_in_China>

Lodi, Simona. Illegal Art and other stories about social media. In Unlike Us Reader: Social Media Monopolies and their alternatives, eds, Geert, Lovink and Miriam, Rasch. Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures, 2013.

Manovich, Lev. Software Takes Command. New York, London, New Delhi, Sydney: Bloomsbury, 2013. Web. 27 Nov. 2013. <http://issuu.com/bloomsburypublishing/docs/9781623566722_web>

Marino, Mark. C. Critical Code Studies electronicbookreview electropoetics. 2006. Web. 27 Nov 2013. <http://www.electronicbookreview.com/thread/electropoetics/codology>

Marriot, Stephanie. Time and time again: ‘live’ television commentary and the construction of replay talk. Media, Culture and Society, 18(1), 1996 pp.69-86.

Munster, Anna. From a Biopolitical “Will to Life” to a Noopolitical Ethos of Death in the Aesthetics of Digital Code. Theory, Culture & Society, 28(6), 2011 pp.67–90.

Noortje, Marres & Esther, Weltevrede. Scraping the Social? Issues in real-time social research. Journal of Cultural Economy, 6(3), 2013 pp.313-335.  Print.

Tseng, Chun-hsiung. Virtual Browsing Environment for Mashups. International Conference on Advanced Information Technology AIT, 2011.

Parikka, Jussi. Digital Contagions: A media archaeology of Computer Viruses, Peter Lang International Academic Publishers, 2009. Print.

Parisi, Luciana. Contagious Architecture: Computation, Aesthetics, and Space. Eds. Massumi, Brian and Manning, Erin. Cambridge, Massachusetts, London: The MIT Press, 2013. Print.

Pasquinelli, Matteo. Animal Spirits. 2008. Web. 27 Nov 2013. < http://matteopasquinelli.com/docs/animal_spirits_introduction.pdf>

Pasquinelli, Matteo. Google’s PageRank Algorithm: A Diagram of the Cognitive Capitalism and the Rentier of the Common Intellect. In Deep Search, ed. Felix, Stalder. London: ransaction Publishers, 2009. Print.

Scannell, Paddy. Radio, Television & Modern Life.  Oxford, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 1996. Print.

Soon, Winnie & Pritchard, Helen. The likes of Brother Cream cat, available at http://project.arnolfini.org.uk/brothercreamcat 2013.

Soon, Winnie & Bevington, W.M (ed). The Public Interface as an Art-Making Enabler. Parsons Journal for Information Mapping, 3(4), 2011 pp.1-7

Thorp, Jer. Art and the API. 2013. Web. 27 Nov 2013. http://blog.blprnt.com/blog/blprnt/art-and-the-api

Zemmels, David. Liveness and Presence in Emerging Communication Technologies. 2004. Web. 27 Nov. 2013. <http://david.zemmels.net/scholarship/Comm7470.html>