Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

This week, I finally got a peek at the Spring syllabus for an undergraduate course I’m co-teaching. Sadly my students won’t be watching Blade Runner or reading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? this year. I will be teaching a session on ‘the death of the book’, though, and science fiction plays an increasingly important part in this discussion.

6e8d3c57-f283-4f63-94cd-9299a160f80d-620x372
© Deep Dream

Several years ago, Google released strange, surreal pictures its neural network ‘Deep Dream’ had painted from random noise. In an article entitled ‘Yes, androids do dream of electric sheep’, The Guardian described the process as follows:

What do machines dream of? New images released by Google give us one potential answer: hypnotic landscapes of buildings, fountains and bridges merging into one.

The pictures, which veer from beautiful to terrifying, were created by the company’s image recognition neural network, which has been “taught” to identify features such as buildings, animals and objects in photographs.

511161f2-d7bf-45b9-81ed-ab391fed3cf9-620x467
© Deep Dream

They were created by feeding a picture into the network, asking it to recognise a feature of it, and modify the picture to emphasise the feature it recognises. That modified picture is then fed back into the network, which is again tasked to recognise features and emphasise them, and so on. Eventually, the feedback loop modifies the picture beyond all recognition.

c5fe2bba-8035-4174-98da-ff896075b8c5-1020x680
© Deep Dream

Since then, Google has also launched Magenta, which aims to use ‘machine learning to create compelling art and music’. One of its first products was this computer-generated piano variation on ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ (drum added later by a human):

 

And let’s not forget Aaron, the AI that’s been painting since the 1970s:

_85305114_aaron
© AARON
_85305118_aaron2
© AARON

Early last year, MIT Technology Review‘s Martin Gayford looked at several of these examples of robotically generated art to try and get at the question of what makes art ‘art’ in the first place:

The unresolved questions about machine art are, first, what its potential is and, second, whether—irrespective of the quality of the work produced—it can truly be described as “creative” or “imaginative.” These are problems, profound and fascinating, that take us deep into the mysteries of human art-making.

Computers have broken into the art world, then, but what about writing? There, too, AI has been making great progress. The Verge‘s Josh Dzieza delved into the strange world of computer-generated novels back in 2014, shortly after Google released its ‘Deep Dream’ images:

Narrative is one of the great challenges of artificial intelligence. Companies and researchers are working to create programs that can generate intelligible narratives, but most of them are restricted to short snippets of text. The company Narrative Science, for example, makes programs that take data from sporting events or financial reports, highlight the most significant information, and arrange it using templates pre-written by humans. It’s not the loveliest prose, but it’s fairly accurate and very fast.

Some of it, like Darius Kazemi’s ‘Teens Wander Around a House’ or Michelle Fullwood’s ‘Twide and Twejudice’ I even want to read myself.

To top it all off, you have the trend of super-realist art, or human-made art that itself looks very similar to what these machines are producing. Writing about Juan Geuer’s Water in Suspense, scientist Michael Nielsen describes how this kind of art works:

Water in Suspense reveals a hidden world. We discover a rich structure immanent in the water droplet, a structure not ordinarily accessible to our senses. In this way it’s similar to the Hubble Extreme Deep Field, which also reveals a hidden world. Both are examples of what I call Super-realist art, art which doesn’t just capture what we can see directly with our eyes or hear with our ears, but which uses new sensors and methods of visualization to reveal a world that we cannot directly perceive. It’s art being used to reveal science.

Although I’m not an artist or an art critic, I find Super-realist art fascinating. Works like the Hubble Extreme Deep Field and Water in Suspense give us concrete, vivid representations of deep space and the interior structure of a water droplet. For most of us, these are usually little more than dry abstractions, remote from our understanding. By creating vivid representations, Super-realist art provides us with a new way of thinking about such phenomena.

Regardless of whether we think machines will kill art, or take it to the next level, I’m very much looking forward to bringing these kinds of questions to my first-years.

The Feminist Politics of Star Wars

This week started off with some exciting news: I get to draft a chapter for Star Wars and the History of Transmedia Storytelling, a collection of academic essays on the franchise edited by Dan Hassler-Forest and Sean Guynes. This collection is scheduled for publication in 2017, to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the first film release.

every-jedi-ever-a-video-timeline

 

The Project

In forty years a lot has changed for Star Wars, and my chapter focuses on the franchise’s feminist politics.

A recent YouTube video cut together all the lines spoken by women in the original Star Wars film trilogy, apart from Princess Leia. The total runtime was just over a minute. Women have been well represented among the ranks of Lucasfilm and LucasArts, but historically the franchise is not known for its groundbreaking portrayal of female characters on-screen. Even so, women have made up a significant and vocal portion of the franchise’s fanbase from early on. Though Princess Leia’s example is a powerful one, what else draws women to Star Wars, and how has the franchise adapted itself to tap into this market?

rendering-r2kt
R2-KT, the pink astromech droid. First created for a little girl with cancer, later honoured with a place in Star Wars canon – to the chagrin of some uninformed fans.

As you can read in the original call for papers, the focus of the collection is on transmedia revision both in and outside of the films:

The chapters in this collection will ultimately demonstrate that Star Wars laid the foundations for the forms of convergence culture that rule the media industries today. As a commercial entertainment property and meaningful platform for audience participation, Star Wars created lifelong fans (and consumers) by continuing to develop characters and plots beyond the original text and by spreading that storyworld across as many media platforms as possible.

Ashley Eckstein, the voice of Ahsoka Tano and founder of HerUniverse.
Ashley Eckstein: Star Wars fan, voice of Ahsoka Tano, and founder of the clothing line HerUniverse.

From the myriad female-led stories in the Star Wars ‘Legends’ (Expanded Universe) novels, to the casting of stars Ewan McGregor and Liam Neeson in The Phantom Menace, to the popular success of female characters like Ahsoka Tano in The Clone Wars and Rey in The Force Awakens, the first half of my chapter will provide a survey of the tactics used to quietly cater to an imagined female audience, from the earliest days of Star Wars’ transmedia empire. This is a complex subject, and I won’t be able to cover everything in the 5,000 words I’m allotted, but I’ll be doing my best to highlight key examples.

'Encounter on Dathomir' © wraithdt on DeviantArt
‘Encounter on Dathomir’ © wraithdt on DeviantArt

In the second part of the chapter, I plan to tie things together by using the matriarchal planet of Dathomir – first depicted in the bonkers (and bestselling) ‘Legends’ novel The Courtship of Princess Leia (1994) and later re-imagined for the canonical Clone Wars animated series (2008-2014) – as an illustration of the franchise’s own evolving relationship with feminist discourse.

How You Can Help

While I have the wealth of the internet and my own experiences to draw on, as well as the invaluable research of people like Michael Kaminski, J.W. Rinzler, and Will Brooker, ideally I want to take this research further. The information available online about Star Wars‘ marketing and mythmaking is pretty sparse before 1995 – no surprise, given that the internet wasn’t really a big thing until then – and there’s no way I can buy up all the paper fanzines, adverts, articles, and reports I would like for this project on a PhD student’s salary.

2471_l

So. Here’s where you come in. Do you remember reading anything that described Star Wars as a boys’ club, or recall seeing an appeal to female audiences either in storytelling or in marketing? What kinds characters, stories, or merchandise has the franchise marketed with a clear idea of ‘men’ or ‘women’ in mind? What are some of the ways (good, bad, and hilarious) in which the Star Wars franchise has tried to appeal to women over the years? What kinds of things have been perceived by the media as gender-pandering?

screen-shot-2015-12-14-at-11-42-24-am

I’m particularly interested in concrete examples from before the prequels (so 1977-1999), and am prioritising officially sanctioned attempts to sell Star Wars to women over grassroots projects, but would welcome anything you can send my way.

Now obviously, on the surface this description seems to ignore all the queer Star Wars fans out there. Please don’t think you’re not also important! Your fandom is a vital part of this research, especially because you’ve long been ignored by marketers. As the previous paragraph states, what I’m looking at here is the perceived audiences for canonical Star Wars products, not the actual ones. I will be on the lookout for slippage between these two groups. I’m also interested in the way the franchise queers itself over time – allowing for multiple readings of the same characters and stories – in order to adjust to changing ideas about gender.

10 Things You Learn While Writing a PhD

© Mateusz Kapciak on FreeImages.com
© Mateusz Kapciak on FreeImages.com

It’s a deadline week for me, meaning I’m quite fed up with writing in general, and writing about academic things especially. Fortunately, it also roughly marks the halfway part of my thesis funding, meaning that instead of writing about my research, I can write a bit about my research process and progress. In another 1.5 years I will be expected to have finished a book, of roughly 80,000 words, about this thing I call the neo-historical monster mashup.

What have I learnt so far about writing a PhD in the field of English literature, and (because this is a blog about popular culture) how can I best fit it into a somewhat arbitrary, clickbait-style article?

1. Everything is arbitrary; or, you can define something pretty much however you want, as long as you’re aware that you’re doing it, and make that clear in your thesis. An overwhelming amount of how you actually put your thesis together, from the ground up, will be dictated by the discipline you happen to be working in. This is especially noticeable if you happen to be in an allegedly ‘interdisciplinary’ field. I’ve spent a lot of time so far trying to fit things into multiple frameworks, before finally deciding just to pick one and stick with it. In retrospect this seems obvious, but I don’t think it’s something that’s really emphasised (or problematised) enough.

2. You don’t necessarily do that much writing. Don’t get me wrong. You write a lot. But even given how much you write, you spend most of your time thinking and editing. It’s as much about what you do when you aren’t working as what you do when you are. I discovered this during a period where I was forcing myself to write every day. Sometimes the best thing you can do for your thesis is stop writing entirely for a couple of weeks, and only take it up again when you have something specific to write. Your subconscious will carry on working in the meantime, and when you get back to writing, everything will suddenly seem much clearer.

© Kyryl Lakishyk on FreeImages.com
© Kyryl Lakishyk on FreeImages.com

 

3. Inspiration strikes at strange moments. During the middle of your grocery shopping? Sure. At 2 a.m. in the morning? Why not? In the bath? Every time. It pays to have a notebook (or a note-taking app on your smartphone) handy at all hours.

4. Your supervisor is an incredibly important factor in how well your thesis work goes. Is he or she interested in your work? Too supportive? Not supportive enough? Do they read your work regularly? How extensive is the feedback they give, and what kind of feedback is it? Are they experts in your field, or do they actually know very little about what you’re trying to say? Often, your supervisor will be the only person besides you who is really involved with this body of work. If they don’t point something out, no one will. And they are too good at pointing things out, you may head in a direction that you’re not happy with. Fortunately, my own supervision experience has been largely positive. My supervisor is present when I need her to be present, and happy to let me go my own way the rest of the time. Not all of my fellow PhDs have been so lucky.

5. A lot has been written already. And you haven’t read any of it. This is something you’re vaguely aware of while you do your MA, but that comes more sharply into focus when you’re trying to make an original contribution to the field. This is especially true, again, if you’re working on  an interdisciplinary subject. In addition, your MA may have taught you how to quickly digest novels, poetry, comic books, films, and cultural theory, but what about philosophy, theology, photography, sociology, computer science, and archaeology? There are whole worlds of academic writing out there, overlapping slightly but never quite touching, and each is written in its own particular way, with its own particular conventions and vocabulary. And the possibilities for linking them to your own work are endless.

© Johanna Ljungblom on FreeImages.com

© Johanna Ljungblom on FreeImages.com

 

6. There’s also a lot that hasn’t been written. Sometimes you will start looking into a particular topic, only to discover that very few people actually seem interested in it. Or worse, no one actually seems to conceive of this subject in the same way that you do. I actually keep a list of these topics, in the event (hah) that I am ever given the chance to write a second or third monograph, but it can be exhausting to realise that instead of relying on someone else’s theoretical framework, you may just have to come up with your own. On the bright side, it makes you feel like your own research will make a more original contribution, once it’s finished.

7. Sometimes you need to be dumber. Yes you may be highly intelligent, and yes you may be able to juggle many complex topics simultaneously, but that’s not always the best way to approach your subject. Less is sometimes more when it comes to thesis writing, and you can always say a lot about very little. Adding that extra theorist, no matter how interesting their work or how relevant it is to your subject, can sometimes get in the way of your message. Additionally, saying something in a complicated way does not make you seem smarter. It is always to your advantage to be as simple and concise as possible – often that will already be complicated enough.

© Mario Alberto Magallanes Trejo on FreeImages.com

© Mario Alberto Magallanes Trejo on FreeImages.com

 

8. There is never enough time. This item is related to the previous one. No matter how well you plan, and how many weeks you give yourself to polish that draft you’ve been working on, you will never reach a point where you feel like you’ve said everything you have to say, or even really said it properly. For that same reason:

9. You often don’t feel like you’re working at all. This is, of course, not so because you aren’t working, but because something about brain work makes time go at once very quickly, and very slowly. Add teaching to the mix, and you can easily feel a week stretch into something that feels more like a month. I’ve easily already written upwards of 80,000 words in the 1.5 years, but if you ask me how far I’ve come in terms of finishing my thesis, I still feel like I’ve only started. A lot of those words will be rewritten, reframed, or simply discarded, which can be frustrating even if you know that writing them helped you to get to this point in the first place.

10. Finally, you discover the ways you had of working before starting your PhD are all wrong for (and unsustainable in) academia. I was never a marathon worker or thinker, and I did well at university without having to spend hours making notes, looking up terms, and re-reading texts. I would fit all my work into a few days a week, when I felt like doing it. As a result, I never properly built up a lot of the skills and tolerances I now feel would actually benefit me in academia. You just can’t muster those intense bursts of work that I used to thrive on for any sustained period of time. Here, everyone is a good student, but what you essentially need to grow into is a person who can maintain a consistently high level of surprisingly diverse work, indefinitely. That’s a whole different story.

© Jeroen Visser on FreeImages.com
© Jeroen Visser on FreeImages.com

Naturally this is all based on my personal struggles, and some of these lessons won’t apply to other people, or other academic disciplines. What do you think? Does this reflect your own PhD writing experience? Will my paradigm shift again completely over the second half of my degree? Leave your thoughts in the comments.