An interview with David Sokol, on WRLDs

In January 2008, I did an interview with David Sokol on WRLDs, at the request of Surface Magazine. At my request, I did the interview via email, hoping to maintain some accuracy. Unfortunately that did not happen, and what was printed was not accurate nor did it reflect the intention of the project.  Here is the complete interview below.

Myself and David Sokol, (green text):

First, I’d like to know about you. Your online interview indicates that you’ve taught at Carnegie Mellon and the University of Washington, and worked in the financial sector. With what department were you affiliated, and do you still teach?

I arrived at Carnegie Mellon in 1995 as a tenure-track faculty member in Electronic Time-Based Media, for the School of Art. My assignment was to oversee computer-based, interactive work. At the time, there was a push for faculty from the School of Art to get involved with faculty in fields outside of their own area of expertise. This led me to develop research and courses that were interdisciplinary. For example, I taught a course in 1998, where art students had some access to a biotechnology laboratory. The course involved researching linguistic concepts of biology and technology, developing, observing and analyzing physical biochemical processes, and developing, observing and analyzing biologically modeled technical processes.

In 1999, I was offered a tenure-track position at the University of Washington, overseeing New Media in the School of Art. At the time, there was no New Media Program at the UW. My hiring was interesting, because there was very little support for New Media within the School of Art itself. Because of this lack of support, I forged relationships with faculty outside the School of Art who were involved in interdisciplinary studies; in particular, with Phillip Thurtle, a researcher and theoretician of science, and Elizabeth Rutledge, a genetics researcher in the School of medicine. We wrote a successful grant for a course which had a laboratory component where a small subset of the 150 students in the course, would undertake experiments in a genetics laboratory, and bring their observations back to the larger group, for broader discussions. Even though the grant for the course was approved by the Director of the School of Art, and funded by the Simpson Center for the Humanities, it was not allowed to be promoted to students, by the School of Art. It is interesting to note, that it is still being taught at the University of Washington outside the School of Art. Because of the lack of access to computing resources, much of my other teaching at the University of Washington involved other forms of interdisciplinary studies, including a graduate course for MFA students on the cultural symbols associated with financial markets.

In 2002, I left academia in order to develop a location outside of academia that addressed interdisciplinary work which incorporated the creation and dissolution of markets. In part I had begun to understand markets through the work of George Bataille and then later through my own research about the financial markets, including working for RBC Dain Rauscher, and earning my series 7 and 66 NASD licenses.

If WRLDS is devoted to realizing, aesthetically, all forms of scientific exchange, why did you decide to start with market data?

First of all, I don’t think I could say that WRLDs is devoted to realizing aesthetically, all forms of scientific exchange. One of the core interests in developing the financial markets as the first project for WRLDs, was to find a method to address the human experience of trading since the creation and dissolution of markets has such broad implications for all of us; we experience it in all aspects of our lives. It is the foundation that allows something to flourish, or recede, not only in the US, but globally. The financial markets were designated as the first project because they are the foundation of all other work.
In the practice of many of the sciences it seems as though interacting directly with physical materials brings researchers outside of their “looking apparatus”, (as discussed with great clarity by Michel Serres, in “Hermes: Literature, Science, Philosophy”). Physical structures provide information which is unexpected, and difficult to control. In the practice of human trading, (not algorithmic which is a different story), it is as though one forgets that there are at times millions of other individuals attached at the same moment, via this technological apparatus, exchanging information, (the buy and sell), in a trading transaction.

My intention for our current project through WRLDs, was to develop our virtual space, (The Foyer), so that one could build a virtual form using your own trading data, in real time, to both gain some distance from the experience of the transaction, as well as share it with others, and transform it with others; to use the data to “build something” which could have some value, other than the “exchange value” of currency.

I wondered if this occurred, if it might not be similar to what I observed in the sciences when researchers interacted with physical structures, or worked with those outside their fields, which often brought new insights into their work. Our current tools for trading, all repeat the same approaches to trading data, with slight refinements or variations. It seemed there had to be other methods that used more of what Derrida might consider as an expanded form of writing as in a hieroglyph; where a single abstract symbol contains layers of meaning. This would be in contrast to a symbol such as the letter “A”, or a number, which by itself, has very little significance. Letters or numbers have to be combined within a specific syntax, in order to be understood, and this syntax is always an ordered and closed linguistic system. In WRLDs, the goal is for objects to operate as a hieroglyph and contain meaning outside of language.

What’s the personal appeal? And what data matrices do you want to tackle next, and how will that alter the mission of WLRDS?

I can’t answer all of these questions, because at this time, WRLDs is very deeply involved in addressing this first project. I do not think that the data set will alter the structure of WRLDs. I think it will however change the way the data is translated into a physical form; that is, it will change the parameters that are used to create a form. With this data set the forms have a circular motif because the information moves in cyclical, circular patterns. This will not be the case for forms generated from other fields.

Regarding Library editions, how do you decide that a rare moment in the marketplace will be a departure point for a new object?

The context for a library object is chosen by research, based on movement in the market and events in the culture. In a sense, they are small monuments marking events that impact us. The Goldman Sachs object was a significant mark, in the decline of the housing and credit markets, which are now impacting us as individuals and as a global culture. It is interesting that when many mortgage lenders were first dropping into bankruptcy, (last summer), that Goldman made significant earnings, because they anticipated this change. It always seems that when there is demise a market is created which profits. We are not making a judgment on this, we are simply marking it.

Concomitantly, is now an exciting time to be making Library objects, considering the instability in the market?

The market is always unstable; but appears stable depending on the time reference you use to analyze it. There is profit in a down or up market, and there is also loss. It is only a change in pressure, from one market to another. Bataille would say that where there is an opening, something floods in to fill it, creating both pressure and a vacuum at the same time. Library Objects are created as markers, and it is very important to document what is occurring in the current market environment.

Do Library and System objects relate to your mission differently? Do they comment on your “market for markets” concept differently?

Library objects document the impact of the markets as a broader cultural force; they are editorial. They also allow WRLDs to link to traditional retail markets. System Objects are linked to individual interactions in the market. They are based on the results of someone venturing into the markets, interacting with the data, and coming out with a result, (profit or loss). Their form changes constantly, and the object that is chosen to print, is based on the member’s sense that a particular moment in their trading history, or that of others, should be documented.

Although I know you’ve broached this topic on your website, could you synopsize your main desire for translating market data into an aesthetic object? What statement do you want to make about the market, about information and its effect on culture, and/or about inspiration for art and design objects? And do you think that realizing this data, aesthetically, will recast the importance of the original data in a way that more primitive visualization techniques (i.e., the common line graph) have not?

As I mentioned above, WRLDs objects are symbols with layers of meaning, similar to a hieroglyph as described by Derrida as an “expanded form of writing”. The meaning conveyed to the observer is complex, and has nuances which are not conveyed with symbols embedded in linguistic structures. Line graphs, or all quantitative tools used for analysis, are designed to simplify the data, and break down the complex information into noticeable shifts so actions can be taken. They are in a sense like abstract nets, which frame or capture particular aspects of data. When I worked at Dain, I found it very interesting that the ideas the analysts used, (which filtered down as actionable events to the traders and brokers, generating a movement in a stock), were in part based on a set of currently popular financial algorithms. So, a company, and their products, might expand or implode, based on data generated by a series of abstract symbols in a specific syntax. This abstract mathematical information was then used to justify the analyst’s position, (to downgrade or upgrade a stock). It had very little to do with the actual value of the product. This abstract system also had the power to create or destroy the viability of a product.

This is similar to what happens in all specialized fields based on language. Abstractions tend to be used to filter results and determine outcomes. But larger composite structures, such as objects, inject broader cultural information. It causes those involved in the specialized abstract language to consider the abstraction from another perspective, and brings the information into a shareable social space. I think this will be even more interesting when the objects are generated through The Foyer, because the larger unpredictable social structure will provide feedback which will alter the way the data is used.
I have been communicating with people involved in Second Life, about “interoperability”, which is an engineering term that describes shifting information from one form to another, such as from the virtual to the physical. This area is developing rapidly and is seen by others such as, Giulio Prisco, a scientist in Madrid as “enabling a personal manufacturing revolution: exchanging physical objects on the Internet with virtual creation at the sending end and physical print-on-demand at the receiving end, in other words a first example of interoperability between physical and virtual reality.” He considers WRLDs to be an example of interoperability.

He goes on to say, “in my article, “Globalization and Open Source Nano Economy” on KurzweilAI, I try to imagine where this trend may lead: “Instead of shipping physical objects, their detailed design specification in a “Molecular Description Language” (MDL) will be transmitted over a global data grid evolved from today’s Internet and then physically “printed” by “nano printers” at remote sites”.”

Although WRLDs is only beginning, I believe translating information across forms, breaks it open, allowing other meanings to escape. Without this “breaking open”, we become defined or captured by our data, which can be used within any context deemed useful.


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