Spy Mission

On Performing the University of Disaster (an interlude)

Mission Orders from the Colonel

If you think the Spy should accept the mission, click here.
If you think the Spy should ignore the Colonel, click here.

Happy Mother's Day


[03/05/2009 1:58:39 PM]

sportsbabel says: please say thanks to your mom……!
sportsbabel says: you are our relation……
sportsbabel says: (smiley)

[03/05/2009 1:58:55 PM]

Playograph Intersection

Brian Holmes: "It would be nice to know more about how this kind of thing breaks down, fucks up, produces failure, infinite waste, tailspins, wrong information, bad choices and so on."

Good advice.

Playograph Intersection

In the chapter of A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia titled "Micropolitics and Segmentarity," Deleuze and Guattari suggest that "segmentarity is inherent to all the strata composing us" (p.208). They identify three forms by which humans segment and are segmented: binary, circular and linear. "But these figures of segmentarity, the binary, circular, and linear, are bound up with one another, even cross over into each other, changing according to the point of view" (p.209).

Perhaps the figures of binary, circular and linear segmentarity can provide tentative first steps towards locating the fluxes and layers (as well as their mutability according to the point of view) at the nexus of the contemporary urban social and professional sporting cultures in an effort to understand a politics that "is simultaneously a macropolitics and a micropolitics" (p.213).

Jordan Crandall: "Rhythms (paces, rates), movements (micro, macro), and machines (social, psychic, and technical) are networked together and embroiled in processes of embodiment both private and public. They employ relay devices (RFs). These relays facilitate a 'language' based in coordination (over relation)."

Rounding the bases, producing runs. Progressively moving from first to ninth inning to declare the truth of the winner. Crossing the street in conformity with the rectilinear urban grid. Home/away, ball/strike, fair/foul, safe/out. Green light. Red light.

(Yellow light invites a moment of indecision or uncertainty.)

Locating the three different forms of segmentarity is a beginning, but if we are concerned with how the linguistic and immaterial feed back into the micropolitics of the lived everyday and its potential fascisms then perhaps we also ought to be cognizant of the points of intersection, the interference waves, and the oscillations between signal and noise that emerge between and within the binary, circular and linear.

Human players embody the Playograph. Each player receives a feed of a baseball game to their cellphone. As play unfolds, players move from base to base (intersection corner to intersection corner) as if propelled electromagnetically by the Playograph system.

But there is interference or noise coming from the intersecting system of traffic lights, which themselves are codes that give permission to move.

Critical Art Ensemble: "The privileged realm of electronic space controls the physical logistics of manufacture, since the release of raw materials and manufactured goods requires electronic consent and direction."

Which semiotic system does the player obey?

Abstracting Ender, Swarming Sender

Note: this essay was cross-posted to the nettime-l mailing list

"All of us are already civilian soldiers, without knowing it. And some of us know it. The great stroke of luck for the military class's terrorism is that no one recognizes it. People don't recognize the militarized part of their identity, of their consciousness" (Paul Virilio, Pure War, p.26).

* * *

Two articles recently retrieved from the data networks, each located somewhere in the nexus between war and interactive entertainment, have given me pause to consider Virilio's question of the civilian soldier anew. The first comes from Wired's Danger Room blog, in which David Hambling details the use of console videogame controllers as the interface for piloting unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). He quotes an executive from defense contractor Raytheon, who points out that "the video-game industry always will outspend the military on improving human-computer interaction," and hence the logic of such an interface choice.

For many would-be soldiers this synergy is years in the making. The blend of muscle memory and proprioception required to operate a console videogame controller, honed throughout childhood, readily transfers to military-level applications much more smoothly (and cheaply) than developing new motor skills for proprietary military interfaces. While various sporting pursuits (boxing, archery, football, etc.) were perceived in eras past to translate in a more abstract biomechanical sense to the battlefield, today the translation is far more concrete: no longer will kids play make-believe with toy guns before a subset someday handles the genuine article; instead, everyone that plays console videogames will always already be handling the real thing and training their bodies for "combat."

The second news item concerning the civilian soldier comes from the 2008 E3 conference, where Sony announced the future launch of its new massively multiplayer online game (MMO), tentatively titled M.A.G. - Massive Action Game. An online war simulation game, M.A.G. promises a substantial innovation in that it will allow 256 players to play simultaneously on the same server without experiencing performance lags (generally speaking, the average online console game might support 20-30 players simultaneously on the same server). Players will compete in squads of eight soldiers, and progress through a "character development" arc that adds certain skills to the soldier's portfolio, from commando, to medic, to demolitions, and so on (embedded journalist didn't appear to be on the list). Though the announcement seems to be as much promotional blitz as substance at this time, it speaks to a concerted effort by Sony to vastly develop its capabilities in online gaming and move the console genre from traditional fantasy world to war simulation.

Online multiplayer gaming is not new. And the war simulation genre is as old as videogames themselves. But Sony's desire and capital investment to shift war videogames to bigger and better online gaming experiences should be of interest as it heralds a significant change in the relationship between war and interactive entertainment, for once the game moves off the console proper and into a server farm or data cloud we create the potential for a radical shift in the notion of the archive as it relates to play and violence, war and peace.

In distilled form, the logistics of war are about tracking a variety of objects — soldiers, vehicles, munitions — as they move spatiotemporally to, from, and within theatres of conflict. Advances in tracking technology have allowed such logistical endeavours to become more granular and synchronized, allowing, for example, real-time remote control of assets on a cartographic grid. But as Jordan Crandall notes in his recent Nettime post, we are making a mistake if we view this primarily as a problem in space. "While it is possible to map … tracked objects in space, such spatialization is not primary. The map is secondary; the numbers are what speak."

This becomes even more apparent when the "space of conflict" in question is the mathematically-generated non-space of the MMO game: when the numbers of polygonal geometric structure beget the numbers of discrete object tracking, which beget the numbers of individual player and team scoring, and so forth. When videogames are played locally on consoles or personal computers, this data stays on the local hard drive or else isn't captured at all. Massive numbers of players in an MMO game, on the other hand, create massive amounts of data, all captured by the owner of the servers. And increasingly, as Ian Ayres points out in Super Crunchers, this data may be mined with sophisticated statistical methods to create actionable information of considerable value to its owner.

Using M.A.G. and the nexus of war and interactive entertainment as an example, such database mining may operate along at least three dimensions to create actionable information of interest to the military: first, to analyze and understand in the aggregate potential outcomes of a mission gamed thousands of times with real human factors and decision making involved; second, to determine within the connected intelligence of this gaming community how learning takes place given objectives with more or less clearly defined goals; third, and perhaps most interesting, to extract statistical outliers at the long tail of the distribution curve that may provide strategies and tactics superior to those put forth by existing military doctrine.

In this last dimension science fiction aficionados will find echoes of the so-called Ender's Game scenario, after the award-winning science fiction novel of the same name by Orson Scott Card. In Ender's Game, children playing videogames are used, without their knowledge, as tools of war against an alien species:

Mazer reached out and touched his shoulder. Ender shrugged him off. Mazer then grew serious and said, "Ender, for the past few months you have been the battle commander of our fleets. This was the Third Invasion. There were no games, the battles were real, and the only enemy you fought was the buggers. You won every battle, and today you finally fought them at their home world, where the queen was, all the queens from all their colonies, they all were there and you destroyed them completely. They'll never attack us again. You did it. You."

Real. Not a game. Ender's mind was too tired to cope with it all. They weren't just points of light in the air, they were real ships that he had fought with and real ships he had destroyed. And a real world that he had blasted into oblivion. He walked through the crowd, dodging their congratulations, ignoring their hands, their words, their rejoicing. When he got to his own room he stripped off his clothes, climbed into bed, and slept (p.296).

In conjunction with the statistical analysis of the petabytes of data they produce, Sony's M.A.G. and its ilk potentially bring the Ender's Game scenario to full fruition, albeit with two major caveats: the role of Ender is no longer played by one person but has been abstracted from the databanked performance of thousands of gamers and aggregated together in a "wisdom of crowds" logic; and instead of Ender controlling a fleet of soldiers in real-time as in the book, our current scenario describes an asynchronous feedbackforward of generated information flowing to and from ludic and violent spaces, oscillating on different temporal registers between the cyborg soldier on the battlefield and the cyborg gamer jacked into the simulation.

In raising such a red flag I may be accused of potential paleo-futurism or paranoid conspiracy, so let me attempt to deflect both of those critiques in advance. With regard to paleo-futurism we must note that most of the exhibits Matt Novak identifies on his blog concern speculative technologies not in existence at the time of their historical prediction, and which would have required significant modifications in consumer behaviour in order to be realized. As the various tidal flows of capital investment in information technology over the past two decades demonstrates, predicting consumer acceptance of disruptive technologies is tricky business. But data mining the archives of play in MMOs does not require any new shift in consumer behaviour: the move from local console severality to non-local online multiplicity has already taken place. It simply becomes a marketing promotions exercise to channel users into the "right" war game or downloadable module at the "right" time.

Nor is it conspiratorial to point out that the traditional nation-state military force has ceded to a complex web of interdependent relationships between various branches of armed forces, intelligence agencies, university research institutions, private militias, and corporate defense contractors — a process that has been underway for the past century:

They could no longer simply say that on one side there was the arsenal which produced a few shells, and on the other civilian consumption and the budget. No, they noticed that they needed a special economy, a wartime economy. This wartime economy was a formidable discovery, which in reality announced and inaugurated the military-industrial complex (Paul Virilio, Pure War, p.16).

Likewise, it is not conspiratorial to note that the communications and entertainment industries are being woven into this web, as the first article about console videogame controllers being used to pilot UAVs illustrates. Rather, this weaving should be considered a logical outcome of the Revolution in Military Affairs and subsequent introduction of C4I technology and strategy, which Donna Haraway hinted at thirty years ago as leading to a "homework economy … controlled by high-tech repressive apparatuses ranging from entertainment to surveillance and disappearance."

The only question, paranoid or no, seems to be how fully the entertainment industries will become enmeshed in the society permanently at war, not simply at the level of human-machine interface — as with the use of console videogame controllers in military contexts — but at the level of intelligence generation and strategy formulation.

It is noteworthy to point out that data mining the movements of players in war-based MMO games would not be the U.S. military's first foray into attempting to harness the collective intelligence of civilians. In 2001 the United States' Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) — not uncoincidentally the same agency responsible for the internet's genesis — funded two projects under the label of "Electronic Market-Based Decision Support."

One of these projects was called Policy Analysis Market (PAM), which was a prediction market that offered traders the ability to financially speculate on the possible occurrence of future geopolitical outcomes. Though substantial development was completed on PAM, it was canceled before its scheduled launch in 2003 due to pressure from the U.S. Senate, which accused the system of basically allowing people to bet and profit on the potential of terrorist attacks and assassinations. Political considerations aside, Brian Holmes' more nuanced and formal analysis of PAM suggests that it "produces information, while turning human actors into functional relays, or indeed, into servomechanisms; and it 'consumes freedom' for a purpose."

Data mining massively multiplayer online war videogames accomplishes similar goals with potentially lucrative gains for entertainment companies like Sony. Indeed, there is a precise calculus of profit maximization to be located between the price elasticity of downloadable game content and the value of data-mined algorithms resulting from exponentially increasing network effects in the game environment. And the freedoms of human actors — the freedom of play, the freedom to choose — are consumed in the production of these algorithms as the civilian soldier lurking within every war gamer is extracted towards servomechanistic ends.

The geopolitical landscape has been changing inexorably since the Cold War, and the tactics and strategies of contemporary conflict have radically followed suit. For example, swarming — of bodies, DNS attacks, etc. — has become a common tactic in material and immaterial fourth-generation warfare. By contrast, then, we might conceive of our MMO data mining scenario as a swarm-in-being of minds and partial-bodies (cf. Virilio's "fleet-in-being"), that is actualized at a later date by soldiers in the battlefield. In other words, it is an "apparatus of capture" by the State — understood in the sense articulated above as a complex web of interrelationships linking public and private interest — that aggregates together diffuse molecular elements at the micropolitical scale.

As a corollary to the first two caveats regarding the Ender's Game scenario mentioned above, a third emerges: in the novel Ender is racked with guilt upon learning of his role in exterminating the enemy bugger species, despite his ignorance at the time of the reality of the situation. Since Ender becomes in our present context an abstraction from the databased activities of thousands, questions of morality and intentionality in war as they relate to the agency of one individual are shattered when considered in this emerging, diffused, servomechanistic form: who, exactly, is responsible? This swarm-in-being is frightening in that it may exert a significant controlling influence over wartime operations without ever engaging in an overt act of violence — or the moral deliberation that accompanies such an act.

Guilty By Association

If we are to view sport as a living, organic cultural process, then we must be cognizant of the patterns of evolution and emergence that shape its forms. Some time ago, I discussed what I referred to as a cladogenesis that occurred in the evolution of football culture: there was essentially a branching from the earlier folk football in which certain factions decided to carry the ball while others decided to kick the ball. The contrasts between these evolutionary strands are perhaps most acutely observed in the differences between association football (soccer) and American football.

Of course, manoeuvring the ball with hands or feet is not the only difference between these two sports. Another such difference involves the field of play: in American football, the field is dissected at 5-yard intervals by thick white painted lines, while minor tick marks graduate every other yard. The material grid on the football field facilitates the optical fixation of a body on the plane of competition ("the line of scrimmage is at the 35-yard line") or serves to constrict a particular body's movement ("run a 15-yard button hook").

The grid also enables easier measurement as teams continue their forward progress to the end zone goal. Unlike rugby league, a sport that displays a high degree of filiation to American football post-cladogenesis, and which allows 6 downs to reach the end zone, the parameters of American football are slightly more modest: while only 4 downs are allowed per possession, these may be refreshed by moving the ball forward 10 yards. In concert with the vertical lines of progressive force and 4-down system of possession, these horizontal yard lines form a tight mesh of striation, hence the colloquial term for the sport: gridiron.

The soccer field, by contrast, is relatively free of such constraining lines. Besides the side and end lines that enclose the playing space proper, there exists only a mid-field line and circle that assume relevance on kickoffs, as well as penalty and goalkeeper crease areas that are related to specific infractions. The soccer field is otherwise an open expanse, almost absent of constraints on movement for the 22 players circulating during a match. In other words, within the enclosure of the playing surface, the pitch consists of smooth, mostly undifferentiated space.

It would seem that this smooth space of soccer would resist attempts to accurately plot and track bodies in space and time. The sport is continuous and open-ended, in contrast with the closed nature of football and its discrete plays. The discrete, closed nature of American football plays — or, the breaks in the flow of competition — introduce other opportunities for measure: a new flow of meta-data is diverted from the productive motion of the athletes, such as down, field position, score, time, run or pass play, etc. In contrast, the continuous movement of the soccer match is such that the opportunity to siphon flows of meta-data is negated.

But not all lines that effect a striated space need have a material presence, we must remember. For example, circles of latitude and meridians of longitude, time zones, and state borders are virtually imposed upon large open expanses, yet are generally understood by populations such as to effect a striation or modulation of bodies in space and time. In American football we introduce a virtual line known as the first down line to modulate a direction of force and measure the level of achievement in progressing towards the end zone goal.


It is in virtualization that soccer yields to the forces of striation, generally, or to production efficiencies in the service of capital, more specifically. Absent a native material grid, such as that which exists in American football, software such as ProZone effectively superimposes a virtual grid on the soccer pitch; this grid is created by a calculated and measured distribution of several cameras that capture images every tenth of a second and are then calibrated and processed by computers to track the athletes as they move in open space and time. Sophisticated statistical filtering allows a soccer manager to monitor player work rate and physical fitness, analyze field zones and team tempo, and find positional patterns from an overhead two-dimensional viewpoint.

The tracking-representation: an image ahead of itself, a post-image in which past activity, present actuality, and future inclination are interwoven.

Images, integrated with databases, containing traces of the future.

Ideologies of preventivity, installed in the public mind.

Statistical tendencies. Inclination carried as part of the body. Processes immersed in active processes of incorporation and integration marking a gradual colonization of the now, a now always slightly after itself. The emergence of "statistical persons." No person existing outside of the database, or who speaks without its mediations (Crandall, Drive, p.61).

So when Eduardo Galeano laments the technocratic shift in association football, we must note that this shift today incorporates the database-enabled tracking-image — and that this shift in the ludic arena of sport-work is increasingly consonant with broader shifts in a militarized post-industrial society.

(Thanks to Michael Silk for the heads-up on ProZone)

Machines and Flows

In everyday parlance we normally consider a "machine" in terms of its structure, form and/or component parts — and certainly as something other than organic. Not so Deleuze and Guattari, from whom we see an immediate break with convention in their description of the machine as "a system of interruptions or breaks". In other words, it is the connections and spaces in between, rather than the component parts themselves, that are of interest to us, for it is these breaks and interstices that channel, constrict, divert or otherwise regulate flow.

Every machine, in the first place, is related to a continual material flow that it cuts into. … Each associative flow must be seen as an ideal thing, an endless flux, flowing from something not unlike the immense thigh of a pig (Deleuze and Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, p.36).

This focus on flow has been very useful for me, particularly since I am interested in flows of sports information in my sportsBabel work. But, D+G remind us, we cannot just consider that which passes through the machine as the sole flow of interest; the connection of one machine to another (technological and human) — or the "production of production" — is itself a flow of importance.

In a word, every machine functions as a break in the flow in the relation to the machine to which it is connected, but at the same time is also a flow itself, or the production of a flow, in relation to the machine connected to it. This is the law of the production of production (Anti-Oedipus, p.36).

By way of example, it is not simply enough to look at an automobile and say: gasoline goes into machine; fuel injector sends flow of gasoline to engine; fuel combusts, separating that flow into 3 flows (mechanical energy, surplus heat, exhaust); flow of mechanical energy propels automobile forward. We must also understand that the automobile's component parts (gas tank, fuel injector, engine, wheels) are themselves machines that are constitutive of a flow that produce a technical machine (the automobile), while multiple automobiles, human drivers, roadway systems, traffic light networks, gasoline distribution centres, etc. are constitutive of a flow that produces a social machine. In turn, this social machine contributes to the production of sedentary, fat bodies in industrialized nations and political instability in Middle Eastern oil regions — the connective syntheses radiate endlessly.

Looking back at an earlier post, I think I was beginning to intuitively scratch at the surface of understanding how such machines connected organics with technics to produce and regulate flows:

With regard to the information, images and identities that are the byproducts of the sportocratic uncertainty-of-outcome process, one becomes less concerned with the carceral nature of their manufacturing in favour of their flow within and from the enclosure of the sportscape.

This is not the flow of the river that erodes a path through a sandy bed over time, however, but rather the flow of the canal: man-made vector for the fluid transmission of communication, from simulation to coach to athlete to teammate; from referee to scorer to scoreboard to television screen; from boxscore to newswire agency to editor to teleprompter; from handicap to spread to parlay to vigorish; from statistic to programmer to model to simulation.

I find this particular read of the "machine" to be useful as I start to come across other types of "machines" in my reading: the war machine, the vision machine (Virilio), the flesh machine (Critical Art Ensemble), the body-machine-image complex (Crandall), etc. Contemporary sporting culture(s) and capital — where my research interests are located — may be found at a nexus point of several of these machines (body, movement, competition, spectacle/surveillance, etc.), and so an understanding of production, consumption and inscription as always already the production of flows and production of production is very helpful to my thought.