The world is flat. Or perhaps better, the world is increasingly “layers”. Certainly the augmediated imaginaries of the major technology companies are now structured around a post-retina notion of mediation made possible and informed by the digital transformations ushered in by mobile technologies that provide a sense of place, as well as a sense of management of complex real-time streams of information and data.
Two new competing computational interface paradigms are now deployed in the latest version of Apple and Google’s operating systems, but more notably as regulatory structures to guide the design and strategy related to corporate policy. The first is “flat design” which has been introduced by Apple through iOS 8 and OS X Yosemite as a refresh of the ageing operating systems’ human computer interface guidelines, essentially stripping the operating system of historical baggage related to techniques of design that disguised the limitations of a previous generation of technology, both in terms of screen but also processor capacity. It is important to note, however, that Apple avoids talking about “flat design” as its design methodology, preferring to talk through its platforms specificity, that is about iOS’ design or OS X’s design. The second is “material design” which was introduced by Google into its Android L, now Lollipop, operating system and which also sought to bring some sense of coherence to a multiplicity of Android devices, interfaces, OEMs and design strategies. More generally “flat design” is “the term given to the style of design in which elements lose any type of stylistic characters that make them appear as though they lift off the page” (Turner 2014). As Apple argues, one should “reconsider visual indicators of physicality and realism” and think of the user interface as “play[ing] a supporting role”, that is that techniques of mediation through the user interface should aim to provide a new kind of computational realism that presents “content” as ontologically prior to, or separate from its container in the interface (Apple 2014). This is in contrast to “rich design,” which has been described as “adding design ornaments such as bevels, reflections, drop shadows, and gradients” (Turner 2014).
I want to explore these two main paradigms – and to a lesser extent the flat-design methodology represented in Windows 7/8 and the, since renamed, Metro interface (now Microsoft Modern UI) – through a notion of a comprehensive attempt by both Apple and Google to produce a rich and diverse umwelt, or ecology, linked through what what Apple calls “aesthetic integrity” (Apple 2014). This is both a response to their growing landscape of devices, platforms, systems, apps and policies, but also to provide some sense of operational strategy in relation to computational imaginaries. Essentially, both approaches share an axiomatic approach to conceptualising the building of a system of thought, in other words, a primitivist predisposition which draws from both a neo-Euclidian model of geons (for Apple), but also a notion of intrinsic value or neo-materialist formulations of essential characteristics (for Google). That is, they encapsulate a version of what I am calling here flat theory. Both of these companies are trying to deal with the problematic of multiplicities in computation, and the requirement that multiple data streams, notifications and practices have to be combined and managed within the limited geography of the screen. In other words, both approaches attempt to create what we might call aggregate interfaces by combining techniques of layout, montage and collage onto computational surfaces (Berry 2014: 70).
The “flat turn” has not happened in a vacuum, however, and is the result of a new generation of computational hardware, smart silicon design and retina screen technologies. This was driven in large part by the mobile device revolution which has not only transformed the taken-for-granted assumptions of historical computer interface design paradigms (e.g. WIMP) but also the subject position of the user, particularly structured through the Xerox/Apple notion of single-click functional design of the interface. Indeed, one of the striking features of the new paradigm of flat design, is that it is a design philosophy about multiplicity and multi-event. The flat turn is therefore about modulation, not about enclosure, as such, indeed it is a truly processual form that constantly shifts and changes, and in many ways acts as a signpost for the future interfaces of real-time algorithmic and adaptive surfaces and experiences. The structure of control for the flat design interfaces is following that of the control society, is “short-term and [with] rapid rates of turnover, but also continuous and without limit” (Deleuze 1992). To paraphrase Deleuze: Humans are no longer in enclosures, certainly, but everywhere humans are in layers.
Apple uses a series of concepts to link its notion of flat design which include, aesthetic integrity, consistency, direct manipulation, feedback, metaphors, and user control (Apple 2014). Reinforcing the haptic experience of this new flat user interface has been described as building on the experience of “touching glass” to develop the “first post-Retina (Display) UI (user interface)” (Cava 2013). This is the notion of layered transparency, or better, layers of glass upon which the interface elements are painted through a logical internal structure of Z-axis layers. This laminate structure enables meaning to be conveyed through the organisation of the Z-axis, both in terms of content, but also to place it within a process or the user interface system itself.
Google, similarly, has reorganised it computational imaginary around a flattened layered paradigm of representation through the notion of material design. Matias Duarte, Google’s Vice President of Design and a Chilean computer interface designer, declared that this approach uses the notion that it “is a sufficiently advanced form of paper as to be indistinguishable from magic” (Bohn 2014). But magic which has constraints and affordances built into it, “if there were no constraints, it’s not design — it’s art” Google claims (see Interactive Material Design) (Bohn 2014). Indeed, Google argues that the “material metaphor is the unifying theory of a rationalized space and a system of motion”, further arguing:
The fundamentals of light, surface, and movement are key to conveying how objects move, interact, and exist in space and in relation to each other. Realistic lighting shows seams, divides space, and indicates moving parts… Motion respects and reinforces the user as the prime mover… [and together] They create hierarchy, meaning, and focus (Google 2014).
This notion of materiality is a weird materiality in as much as Google “steadfastly refuse to name the new fictional material, a decision that simultaneously gives them more flexibility and adds a level of metaphysical mysticism to the substance. That’s also important because while this material follows some physical rules, it doesn’t create the “trap” of skeuomorphism. The material isn’t a one-to-one imitation of physical paper, but instead it’s ‘magical'” (Bohn 2014). Google emphasises this connection, arguing that “in material design, every pixel drawn by an application resides on a sheet of paper. Paper has a flat background color and can be sized to serve a variety of purposes. A typical layout is composed of multiple sheets of paper” (Google Layout, 2014). The stress on material affordances, paper for Google and glass for Apple are crucial to understanding their respective stances in relation to flat design philosophy.
Glass (Apple): Translucency, transparency, opaqueness, limpidity and pellucidity.
Paper (Google): Opaque, cards, slides, surfaces, tangibility, texture, lighted, casting shadows.
In contrast to the layers of glass that inform the logics of transparency, opaqueness and translucency of Apple’s flat design, Google uses the notion of remediated “paper” as a digital material, that is this “material environment is a 3D space, which means all objects have x, y, and z dimensions. The z-axis is perpendicularly aligned to the plane of the display, with the positive z-axis extending towards the viewer. Every sheet of material occupies a single position along the z-axis and has a standard 1dp thickness” (Google 2014). One might think then of Apple as painting on layers of glass, and Google as thin paper objects (material) placed upon background paper. However a key difference lies in the use of light and shadow in Google’s notion which enables the light source, located in a similar position to the user of the interface, to cast shadows of the material objects onto the objects and sheets of paper that lie beneath them (see Jitkoff 2014). Nonetheless, a laminate structure is key to the representational grammar that constitutes both of these platforms.
|Armin Hofmann, head of the graphic design department at the Schule für Gestaltung Basel (Basel School of Design) and was instrumental in developing the graphic design style known as the Swiss Style. Designs from 1958 and 1959.|
Interestingly, both design strategies emerge from an engagement with and reconfiguration of the principles of design that draw from the Swiss style (sometimes called the International Typographic Style) in design (Ashghar 2014, Turner 2014). This approach emerged in the 1940s, and
mainly focused on the use of grids, sans-serif typography, and clean hierarchy of content and layout. During the 40’s and 50’s, Swiss design often included a combination of a very large photograph with simple and minimal typography (Turner 2014).
The design grammar of the Swiss style has been combined with minimalism and the principle of “responsive design”, that is that the materiality and specificity of the device should be responsive to the interface and context being displayed. Minimalism is a “term used in the 20th century, in particular from the 1960s, to describe a style characterized by an impersonal austerity, plain geometric configurations and industrially processed materials” (MoMA 2014). Robert Morris, one of the principle artists of Minimalism, and author of the influential Notes on Sculpture used “simple, regular and irregular polyhedrons. Influenced by theories in psychology and phenomenology” which he argued “established in the mind of the beholder ‘strong gestalt sensation’, whereby form and shape could be grasped intuitively” (MoMA 2014).
|Robert Morris: Untitled (Scatter Piece), 1968-69, felt, steel, lead, zinc, copper, aluminum, brass, dimensions variable; at Leo Castelli Gallery, New York. Photo Genevieve Hanson. All works this article © 2010 Robert Morris/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.|
The implications of these two competing world-views are far-reaching in that much of the worlds initial contact, or touch points, for data services, real-time streams and computational power is increasingly through the platforms controlled by these two companies. However, they are also deeply influential across the programming industries, and we see alternatives and multiple reconfigurations in relation to the challenge raised by the “flattened” design paradigms. That is, they both represent, if only in potentia, a situation of a power relation and through this an ideological veneer on computation more generally. Further, with the proliferation of computational devices – and the screenic imaginary associated with them in the contemporary computational condition – there appears a new logic which lies behind, justifies and legitimates these design methodologies.
It seems to me that these new flat design philosophies, in the broad sense, produce an order in precepts and concepts in order to give meaning and purpose not only in the interactions with computational platforms, but also more widely in terms of everyday life. Flat design and material design are competing philosophies that offer alternative patterns of both creation and interpretation, which are meant to have not only interface design implications, but more broadly in the ordering of concepts and ideas, the practices and the experience of computational technologies broadly conceived. Another way to put this could be to think about these moves as being a computational founding, the generation of, or argument for, an axial framework for building, reconfiguration and preservation.
Indeed, flat design provides and more importantly serves, as a translational or metaphorical heuristic for both re-presenting the computational, but also teaches consumers and users how to use and manipulate new complex computational systems and stacks. In other words, in a striking visual technique flat design communicates the vertical structure of the computational stack, on which the Stack corporations are themselves constituted. But also begins to move beyond the specificity of the device as privileged site of a computational interface interaction from beginning to end. For example, interface techniques are abstracted away from the specificity of the device, for example through Apple’s “handoff” continuity framework which also potentially changes reading and writing practices in interesting ways.
These new interface paradigms, introduced by the flat turn, have very interesting possibilities for the application of interface criticism, through unpacking and exploring the major trends and practices of the Stacks, that is, the major technology companies. I think that further than this, the notion of layers are instrumental in mediating the experience of an increasingly algorithmic society (e.g. think dashboards, personal information systems, quantified self, etc.), and as such provide an interpretative frame for a world of computational patterns but also a constituting grammar for building these systems in the first place. There is an element in which the notion of the postdigital may also be a useful way into thinking about the question of the link between art, computation and design given here (see Berry and Dieter, forthcoming) but also the importance of notions of materiality for the conceptualisation deployed by designers working within both the flat design and material design paradigms – whether of paper, glass, or some other “material” substance.
 Many thanks to Michael Dieter and Søren Pold for the discussion which inspired this post.
 The choice of paper and glass as the founding metaphors for the flat design philosophies of Google and Apple raise interesting questions for the way in which these companies articulate the remediation of other media forms, such as books, magazines, newspapers, music, television and film, etc. Indeed, the very idea of “publication” and the material carrier for the notion of publication is informed by the materiality, even if only a notional affordance given by this conceptualisation. It would be interesting to see how the book is remediated through each of the design philosophies that inform both companies, for example.
 One is struck by the posters produced in the Swiss style which date to the 1950s and 60s but which today remind one of the mobile device screens of the 21st Century.
 There is also some interesting links to be explored between the Superflat style and postmodern art movement, founded by the artist Takashi Murakami, which is influenced by manga and anime, both in terms of the aesthetic but also in relation to the cultural moment in which “flatness” is linked to “shallow emptiness”.
 There is some interesting work to be done in thinking about the non-visual aspects of flat theory, such as the increasing use of APIs, such as the RESTful api, but also sound interfaces that use “flat” sound to indicate spatiality in terms of interface or interaction design.
Apple (2014) iOS Human Interface Guidelines, accessed 13/11/2014, https://developer.apple.com/library/ios/documentation/userexperience/conceptual/mobilehig/Navigation.html
Ashghar, T. (2014) The True History Of Flat Design, accessed 13/11/2014, http://www.webdesignai.com/flat-design-history/
Berry, D. M. (2014) Critical Theory and the Digital, New York: Bloomsbury.
Berry, D. M. and Dieter, M. (forthcoming) Postdigital Aesthetics: Art, Computation and Design, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Bohn, D. (2014) Material world: how Google discovered what software is made of, The Verge, accessed 13/11/2014, http://www.theverge.com/2014/6/27/5849272/material-world-how-google-discovered-what-software-is-made-of
Cava, M. D. (2013) Jony Ive: The man behind Apple’s magic curtain, USA Today, accessed 1/1/2014, http://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/2013/09/19/apple-jony-ive-craig-federighi/2834575/
Deleuze, G. (1992) Postscript on the Societies of Control, October, vol. 59: 3-7.
Google (2014) Material Design, accessed 13/11/2014, http://www.google.com/design/spec/material-design/introduction.html
Google Layout (2014) Principles, Google, accessed 13/11/2014, http://www.google.com/design/spec/layout/principles.html
Jitkoff, N. (2014) This is Material Design, Google Developers Blog, accessed 13/11/2014, http://googledevelopers.blogspot.de/2014/06/this-is-material-design.html
MoMA (2014) Minimalism, MoMA, accessed 13/11/2014, http://www.moma.org/collection/details.php?theme_id=10459
Turner, A. L. (2014) The history of flat design: How efficiency and minimalism turned the digital world flat, The Next Web, accessed 13/11/2014, http://thenextweb.com/dd/2014/03/19/history-flat-design-efficiency-minimalism-made-digital-world-flat/
Undoing Property? is a wonderful project, the final piece of which is a book edited by Marysia Lewandowska and Laurel Ptak (2013). Anyone familiar with my note-taking style will see that Lewandowska and Ptak have used my notes to “set the scene for the rest of the book’s contributions. [As] a great connective space reflecting our first discussion” (Lewandowska 2013). It is more than a little surreal to see my notes remediated in this way, especially considering the pathways that mediation took, from initial discussion in The Showroom, through pen, paper and hand to large scale digital scanner, through email to Sweden where Konst & Teknik digitally edited the file and placed it within the digital book, and then on to Sternberg Press who then printed the book onto paper ready for distribution physically. Below, the mediated circuit is re-presented using photographs taken by Lewandowska which were digitally distributed through WeTransfer and email. The following set of images also, incidentally, reminds me of the Google Books scans with the inclusion of fingers 🙂
Undoing Property? examines complex relationships of ownership that exist inside art, culture, political economy, immaterial production, and the public realm today. In its pages artists and writers address aspects of computing, curating, economy, ecology, gentrification, music, publishing, piracy, and much more. Property shapes all social relations. Its invisible lines force separations and create power relations felt through the unequal distribution of what otherwise is collectively produced value. Over the last few years the precise question of what should be privately owned and publicly shared in society has animated intense political struggles and social movements around the world. In this shadow the publication’s critical texts, interviews and artistic interventions offer models of practice and interrogate diverse sites, from the body, to the courtroom, to the server, to the museum. The book asks why propertisation itself has changed so fundamentally over the last few decades and what might be done to challenge this. The book is a result of a four-year collaboration between London-based artist Marysia Lewandowska and New York-based curator Laurel Ptak. It is produced by Tensta Konsthall, Stockholm, Casco – Office for Art, Design and Theory, Utrecht, and The Showroom and published by Sternberg Press.
Edited by Marysia Lewandowska, Laurel Ptak
Contributions by: Agency, David Berry, Nils Bohlin, Sean Dockray, Rasmus Fleischer, Antonia Hirsch, David Horvitz, Mattin, Open Music Archive, Matteo Pasquinelli, Claire Pentecost, Florian Schneider, Matthew Stadler, Marilyn Strathern, Kuba Szreder, Marina Vishmidt.
Design by Konst & Teknik
Published by Sternberg Press
169 x 239 mm, 256 pages, 30 b/w illustrations, library-bound hardcover
Undoing Property? is produced in the context of the programme COHAB, a two-year collaboration between Casco – Office for Art, Design and Theory, Utrecht, Tensta Konsthall, Stockholm, and The Showroom. COHAB is supported by a Cooperation Measures grant from the European Commission Culture Programme (2007-2013).
There are now some interesting challenges emerging to the philosophical systems described in object-oriented ontology, such as Alex Galloway’s recent piece, ‘A response to Graham Harman’s “Marginalia on Radical Thinking”’ and Christian Thorne’s, ‘To The Political Ontologists‘, as well as my own contribution, ‘The Uses of Object-Oriented Ontology‘.
Here, I want to tentatively explore the links between my own notion of computationality as ontotheology and how object-oriented ontology unconsciously reproduces some of these structural features that I think are apparent in its ontological and theological moments. In order to do this, I want to begin outlining some of the ways one might expect the ‘ontological moment’, as it were, to be dominated by computational categories and ideas which seem to hold greater explanatory power. In this regard I think this recent tweet by Robert Jackson is extremely revealing,
Robert Jackson (@Recursive_idiot)
I think this Galloway / OOO issue can be resolved with computability theory. Objects / units need not be compatible with the state.
Revealing, too, are the recent discussions by members of object-oriented ontology and the importance of the computational medium for facilitating its reproduction – see Levi Bryant’s post ‘The Materiality of SR/OOO: Why Has It Proliferated?‘, and Graham Harman’s post ‘on philosophical movements that develop on the internet‘.
It is interesting to note that these philosophers do not take account of the possibility that the computational medium itself may have transformed the way in which they understand the ontological dimension of their projects. Indeed, the taken-for-granted materiality of digital media is clearly being referred to in relation to a form of communication theory – as if the internet were merely a transparent transmission channel – rather than seeing the affordances of the medium encouraging, shaping, or creating certain ways of thinking about things, as such.
Of course, they might respond, clearly the speed and publishing affordances allow them to get their messages out quicker, correct them, and create faster feedback and feedforward loops. However, I would argue that the computational layers (software, applications, blogs, tweets, etc.) also discipline the user/writer/philosopher to think within and through particular computational categories. I think it is not a coincidence that what is perhaps the first internet or born-digital philosophy has certain overdetermined characteristics that reflect the medium within which they have emerged. I am not alone in making this observation, indeed, Alexander Galloway has started to examine the same question, writing,
[T]he French philosopher Catherine Malabou asks: “What should we do so that consciousness of the brain does not purely and simply coincide with the spirit of capitalism?”….Malabou’s query resonates far and wide because it cuts to the heart of what is wrong with some philosophical thinking appearing these days. The basic grievance is this: why, within the current renaissance of research in continental philosophy, is there a coincidence between the structure of ontological systems and the structure of the most highly-evolved technologies of postfordist capitalism? I am speaking, on the one hand, of computer networks in general, and object-oriented computer languages (such as Java or C++) in particular, and on the other hand, of certain realist philosophers such as Bruno Latour, but also more pointedly Quentin Meillassoux, Graham Harman, and their associated school known as “speculative realism.” Why do these philosophers, when holding up a mirror to nature, see the mode of production reflected back at them? Why, in short, a coincidence between today’s ontologies and the software of big business? (Galloway, forthcoming, original emphasis)
He further argues:
Philosophy and computer science are not unconnected. In fact they share an intimate connection, and have for some time. For example, set theory, topology, graph theory, cybernetics and general system theory are part of the intellectual lineage of both object-oriented computer languages, which inherit the principles of these scientific fields with great fidelity, and for recent continental philosophy including figures like Deleuze, Badiou, Luhmann, or Latour. Where does Deleuze’s “control society” come from if not from Norbert Wiener’s definition of cybernetics? Where do Latour’s “actants” come from if not from systems theory? Where does Levi Bryant’s “difference that makes a difference” come from if not from Gregory Bateson’s theory of information? (Galloway, forthcoming).
Ian Bogost’s (2012) Alien Phenomenology is perhaps the most obvious case where the links between his computational approach and his philosophical system are deeply entwined, objects, units, collections, lists, software philosophy, carpentry (as programming) etc. Indeed, Robert Jackson also discusses some of the links with computation, making connections between the notion of interfaces and encapsulation, and so forth, in object-oriented programming in relation to forms of object-orient ontology’s notion of withdrawal, etc. He writes,
Encapsulation is the notion that objects have both public and private logics inherent to their components. But we should be careful not to regard the notion that private information is deliberately hidden from view, it is rather the unconditional indifference of objects qua objects. Certain aspects of the object are made public and others are occluded by blocking off layers of data. The encapsulated data can still be related to, even if the object itself fails to reveal it (Jackson 2011).
This, he argues, serves as a paradigmatic example of the object-oriented ontologists’ speculations about objects as objects. Therefore, a research project around object-oriented computational systems would, presumably, allow us to cast light on wider questions about other kinds of objects, after all, objects are objects, in the flat ontology of object-oriented ontology. In contrast, I would argue that it is no surprise that object-oriented ontology and object-oriented programming have these deep similarities as they are drawing from the same computational imaginary, or foundational ideas, about what things are or how they are categorised in the world, in other words a computational ontotheology – computationality.
The next move is the step that Alex Galloway makes, to link this to the wider capitalist order, postfordist or informational capitalism (what I would call Late Capitalism). He then explores how this ideological superstructure is imposed onto a capitalist mode of production, both to legitimate and to explain its naturalness or inevitability. Galloway argues,
(1) If recent realist philosophy mimics the infrastructure of contemporary capitalism, should we not show it the door based on this fact alone, the assumption being that any mere repackaging of contemporary ideology is, by definition, anti-scientific and therefore suspect on epistemological grounds? And (2) even if one overlooks the epistemological shortcomings, should we not critique it on purely political grounds, the argument being that any philosophical project that seeks to ventriloquize the current industrial arrangement is, for this very reason, politically retrograde? (Galloway, forthcoming).
He further writes,
Granted, merely identifying a formal congruity is not damning in itself. There are any number of structures that “look like” other structures. And we must be vigilant not to fetishize form as some kind of divination–just as numerology fetishizes number. Nevertheless are we not obligated to interrogate such a congruity? Is such a mimetic relationship cause for concern? Meillassoux and others have recently mounted powerful critiques of “correlationism,” so why a blindness toward this more elemental correlation?… What should we do so that our understanding of the world does not purely and simply coincide with the spirit of capitalism? (Galloway, forthcoming, original emphasis).
Galloway concludes his article by making the important distinction between materialism and realism, pointing out that materialism must be historical and critical whereas realism tends towards an ahistoricism. By historicising object-oriented ontology, we are able to discern the links between the underlying computational capitalism and its theoretical and philosophical manifestations.
More work needs to be done here to trace the trajectories that are hinted at, particularly the computationality I see implicit in object-oriented ontology and speculative realism more generally. But I also want to tentatively gesture towards object-oriented ontology as one discourse contributing to a new bifurcation (as Whitehead referred to the nature/culture split). In this case, not between nature and culture, which today have begun to reconnect as dual hybridised sites of political contestation – for example, climate change – but rather as computation versus nature-culture.
Where nature-culture becomes a site of difference, disagreement, political relativism and a kind of ‘secondary’ quality, in other words ‘values’ and ‘felicity conditions’. Computationality, or some related ontological form, becomes the site of primary qualities or ‘facts’, the site of objectivity, and is foundational, ahistorical, unchanging and a replacement for nature in modernity as the site of agreement upon which a polity is made possible – a computational society.
Here, the abstract nature of objects within object-oriented programming, formal objects which inter-relate to each other and interact (or not), and yet remain deeply computational, mathematical and discrete is more than suggestive of the flat ontology that object-oriented ontology covets. The purification process of object-oriented design/programming is also illustrative of the gradual emptying of the universe of ‘non-objects’ by object-oriented ontology, which then serves to create ontological weight, and the possibility of shared consensus within this new bifurcated world. This creates a united foundation, understood as ontological, a site of objectivity, facts, and with a strict border control to prevent this pure realm being affected by the newly excised nature-culture. Within this new bifurcation, we see pure objects placed in the bifurcated object-space and subjects are located in the nature-culture space – this is demonstrated by the empty litanies that object-oriented ontologists share and which describe abstract objects, not concrete entities. This is clearly ironic in a philosophical movement that claims to be wholly realist and displays again the anti-correlationist paradox of object-oriented ontology.
This ontological directive also points thought towards the cartography of pure objects, propositions on the nature of ‘angels’, ‘Popeye’ and ‘unicorns’, and commentary on commentary in a scholastic vortex through textual attempts to capture and describe this abstract sphere – without ever venturing into the ‘great outdoors’ that object-oriented ontologists claim to respect. What could be closer to the experience of contemporary capitalist experience than the digital mazes that are set up by the likes of Facebook and Google, to trap the user into promises of entertainment and fulfilment by moving deeper and deeper around the social ontologies represented in capitalist social networks, and which ultimately resolve in watching advertisements to fuel computational capitalism?
Galloway rightly shows us how to break this spell, reflected also in the object-oriented ontologists refusal to historicise, through a concrete analysis of the historical and material conditions of production, he writes:
One might therefore label this the postfordist response to philosophical realism in general and Meillassoux in particular: after software has entered history, math cannot and should not be understood ahistorically… math itself, as algorithm, has become a historical actor. (Galloway, forthcoming, original emphasis).
Bogost, I. (2012a) Alien Phenomenology: or What It’s Like To Be A Thing, Minnesota University Press.
Galloway, A. R. (forthcoming) The Poverty of Philosophy: Realism and Postfordism, copy supplied by the author.
Jackson, R. (2011) Why we should be Discrete in Public – Encapsulation and the Private lives of Objects, accessed 04/06/2012, http://robertjackson.info/index/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/Aarhus-presentation.pdf
Strangely, and somewhat unexpectedly, James Bridle unilaterally closed the New Aesthetic Tumblr blog today, 6 May 2012, announcing ‘The New Aesthetic tumblr is now closed’, with some particular and general thanks and very little information about future plans. Perhaps this was always Bridle’s intention as a private project, but one can’t help wonder if the large amount of attention, the move to a public and contested concept, and the loss of control that this entailed may have encouraged a re-assertion of control. If so, this is a great pity and perhaps even an act of vandalism.
|Harpa, Iceland (Berry 2011)|
This, then, is a critical turning point, or krisis, for the nascent New Aesthetic movement, and, for me, the blog closure heralds an interesting struggle over what is the New Aesthetic? Who owns or controls it? And in what directions it can now move.? Certainly, I am of the opinion that to have closed the blog in this way insinuates a certain proprietary attitude to the New Aesthetic. Considering that the Tumblr blog has largely been a crowd-sourced project, giving no explanation, allowing no debate, discussion over the closure, etc. makes it look rather like it harvested peoples’ submissions on what could have been a potentially participatory project. Whichever way it is cast, James Bridle looks rather high-handed in light of the many generous and interesting discussions that the New Aesthetic has thrown up across a variety of media.
One of the key questions will be the extent to which this blog was a central locus of, or collection for representing, the New Aesthetic more generally. Personally I found myself less interested in the Tumblr blog that became increasingly irrelevant in light of the high level of discussion found upon Imperica, The Creators Project, The Atlantic, Crumb and elsewhere. But there is clearly a need for something beyond the mere writing and rewriting of the New Aesthetic that many of the essays around the topic represented. Indeed, there is a need for an inscription or articulation of the New Aesthetic through multiple forms, both visual and written (not to mention using the sensorium more generally). I hope that we will see a thousand New Aesthetic Pinterest, Tumblr, and PinIt sites bloom across the web.
|Urban Cursor is a GPS enabled object (Sebastian Campion 2009)|
Nonetheless, it is disappointing to see the number of twitter commentators who have tweeted the equivalent of ‘well, that was that’, as if the single action of an individual is decisive in stifling a new and exciting way of articulating a way of being in the world. Indeed, this blog closure highlights the importance of taking care of the New Aesthetic, especially in its formative stages of development. Whilst there have been a number of dismissive and critical commentaries written about the New Aesthetic, I feel that there is a kernel of something radical and interesting happening and which still remains to be fully articulated, expressed, and made manifest in and through various mediums of expression.
The New Aesthetic blog might be dead, but the New Aesthetic as a way of conceptualising the changes in our everyday life that are made possible in and through digital technology is still unfolding. For me the New Aesthetic was not so much a collection of things as the beginning of a new kind of Archive, an Archive in Motion, which combined what Bernard Stiegler called the Anamnesis (the embodied act of memory as recollection or remembrance) and Hypomnesis (the making-technical of memory through writing, photography, machines, etc.). Stiegler writes,
We have all had the experience of misplacing a memory bearing object – a slip of paper, an annotated book, an agenda, relic or fetish, etc. We discover then that a part of ourselves (like our memory) is outside of us. This material memory, that Hegel named objective, is partial. But it constitutes the most precious part of human memory: therein, the totality of the works of spirit, in all guises and aspects, takes shape (Stiegler n.d.).
Thus, particularly in relation to the affordances given by the networked and social media within which it circulated, combined with a set of nascent practices of collection, archive and display, the New Aesthetic is distinctive in a number of ways. Firstly, it gives a description and a way of representing and mediating the world in and through the digital, that is understandable as an infinite archive (or collection). Secondly, it alternately highlights that something digital is happening in culture – and which we have only barely been conscious of – and the way in which culture is happening to the digital. Lastly, the New Aesthetic points the direction of travel for the possibility of a Work of Art in the digital age.
In this, the New Aesthetic is something of a pharmakon, in that it is both potentially poison and cure for an age of pattern matching and pattern recognition. In as much as the archive was the set of rules governing the range of what can be verbally, audio-visually or alphanumerically expressed at all, and the database is the grounding cultural logic of software cultures, the New Aesthetic is the cultural eruption of the grammatisation of software logics into everyday life. That is, the New Aesthetic is a deictic moment which sheds light on changes in our lives that imperil things, practices, and engaging human relations, and the desire to make room for such relations, particularly when they are struggling to assert themselves against the dominance of neoliberal governance, bureaucratic structures and market logics.
The New Aesthetic, in other words, brings these patterns to the surface, and in doing so articulates the unseen and little understood logic of computational society and the anxieties that this introduces.
 krisis: a separating, power of distinguishing, decision , choice, election, judgment, dispute.
 A deictic explanation is here understood as one which articulates a thing or event in its uniqueness.
Stiegler, B. (n.d.) Anamnesis and Hypomnesis, accessed 06/05/2012, http://arsindustrialis.org/anamnesis-and-hypomnesis
The New Aesthetic is now subject to discussion and critique on a number of forums, blogs, twitter threads, and so forth (for a list, see bibliography on Berry 2012a, but also Bridle 2012, Kaganskiy 2012, Sterling 2012). Many of these discussions have a particular existential flavour, questioning the existence and longevity of the New Aesthetic, for example, or beginning to draw the boundaries of what is ‘in’ or ‘out’ of the domain of New Aesthetic things (See Twitter 2012). Grusin (2012), for example, claims: ‘[t]he “new aesthetic” is just the latest name for remediation, all dressed up with nowhere to go’. At such an early stage there is understandably some scepticism and, being mediated via Twitter, some sarcasm and dismissal, rather than substantive engagements with the questions raised by a moment presaged by the eruption of the digital into the everyday lifeworld, but also some partial support (for example see, Berry 2012b, Crumb 2012, Exinfoam 2012, Fernandez 2012, Owens 2012). Nonetheless, it is good to see so much discussion and excitement around the concept, however defined.
In order to pursue the New Aesthetic further I want to move away from these existential questions and look in more detail at some of the claims advanced by spokespeople for object-oriented ontology (OOO), or what is sometimes called speculative realism (Bogost 2008, 2012; Borenstein 2012; Jackson 2012). More specifically, I want to explore the attempt to critique the New Aesthetic in terms of what they call a misplaced focus on the merely computational. Instead, I want to question the way in which they propose an extension of method (or movement) that takes in, well, everything in the universe. In other words, what one might call a co-option of the New Aesthetic into the arms of object-oriented ontology. The intention here is to address what is at stake in accepting the claims of the object-oriented ontologists and what are the implications both theoretically and empirically for the New Aesthetic more generally. First it is worth exploring what the OOO are claiming, for example Borenstein,
I believe that Sterling is wrong. I believe that the New Aesthetic is actually striving towards a fundamentally new way of imagining the relations between things in the world. To convince you of this, I’ll make a case that the New Aesthetic strongly resonates with a recent movement in philosophy called Object-Oriented Ontology and that establishing a closer alliance with OOO might be a way to increase the precision of the New Aesthetic vocabulary and enrich its process by pointing towards new modes of imagining its objects of fascination (Borenstein 2012).
Here, Borenstein is arguing that the New Aesthetic has an OOO predilection or ‘resonates’ with the claims and descriptions of the OOO. In other words, the claim is that the New Aesthetics is merely a subset of OOO, and as Bogost further argues,
It’s true that computers are a particularly important and influential kind of thing in the world, and indeed I myself have spent most of my career pondering how to use, make, and understand them. But they are just one thing among so many more: airports, sandstone, koalas, climate, toaster pastries, kudzu, the International 505 racing dinghy, the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, the brand name ‘TaB.’ Why should a new aesthetic interested only in the relationship between humans and computers, when so many other relationships exist just as much? Why stop with the computer, like Marinetti foolishly did with the race car? (Bogost 2012).
|Pixel Pour (2008)|
We might counter immediately that this suggestion confuses aesthetics and ontology where aesthetics is primarily concerned with the nature and appreciation of ‘beauty’ (or a post-Kantian ‘disinterestedness’), however defined, and ontology, is concerned with the nature of being, or the fundamental metaphysical stuff out there in the universe. Bogost also claims that the New Aesthetic is about the ‘relationship between humans and computers’ and he argues that instead it should be concerned with ontology, in this case the object-oriented relationships between lots of different kinds of objects. For now we will put aside the slippage between ‘computers’ and what are clearly representations for, or of, the ‘digital’ (see Berry 2012a, 2012b) and the fact that many of these New Aesthetic objects may have been created as artworks without the mediation of digital technology at all, for example NYC Street Art Pixel Pour and Pixel Pour 2.0 (photographed by Benjamin Norman).
|Pixel Pour (2011) (photo: Benjamin Norman)|
This representation of the digital is, of course, an interesting feature of the New Aesthetic as much as (1) there may be the mediation of digital technology in the creation of aesthetic objects or (2) the affordances of digital vision that creates certain kinds of recognisable digital artefacts (see Ellis 2011, Sloan 2011). This I called ‘an element of “down-sampled” representation of a kind of digital past, or perhaps digital passing, in that the kinds of digital glitches, modes, and forms that are chosen, are very much located historically’ (Berry 2012a). We might think of these alternative formulations or threads within the New Aesthetic as (i) representations of the digital, (ii) mediation by digital processes, and (iii) digital/computer vision. In any case, it is clear that it is the aesthetic output that is being addressed here and although I think a lot could be added to this with consideration to the non-visual computational processes involved in mediating this output, such as code and software (see Berry 2011), so far the main focus of the New Aesthetic has been visual. Additionally, Jackson identifies, although he also in my mind mistakenly rejects, the importance of ‘disorientation’ for the New Aesthetic,
The really interesting element of the new aesthetic is that it presents genuinely interesting stuff, but Bridle’s delivery strategy is set to ‘gushing disorientation’. At present, it’s the victim of the compulsive insular network it feeds off from. It presents little engagement with the works themselves instead favouring bombardment and distraction. Under these terms, aesthetics only leads to a banal drudgery, where everything melts together into a depthless disco. Any depth to the works themselves are forgotten… Memes require instant satisfaction. Art requires depth” (Jackson 2012).
Whilst I think the claim that ‘Art requires depth’ is a somewhat conservative notion of what art is or should be, it seems to me that disorientation, or what I would call, following Heidegger, frantic disorientation, is an important marker of the specificity of the New Aesthetic. Something that requires careful consideration in relation to the claims of ‘depthlessness’ that attended the rise of postmodernism (see Jameson 2006).
So in what way would an extension of the New Aesthetic to an OOO help with this project? The general claim seems to be that by learning more about the relationships between different objects without the mediation of human beings, we can think in a non-anthropomorphic way, without what Harman calls the ‘idea of human access’ (Shaviro 2011). As Bogost argues,
Our job is to amplify the black noise of objects to make the resonant frequencies of the stuffs inside them hum in credibly satisfying ways. Our job is to write the speculative fictions of these processes, of their unit operations. Our job is to get our hands dirty with grease, juice, gunpowder, and gypsum. Our job is to go where everyone has gone before, but where few have bothered to linger (Bogost, quoted in Borenstein 2012).
This is, to follow from the work of Quentin Meillassoux (2009) who argued in After Finitude:
Such considerations reveal the extent to which the central notion of modern philosophy since Kant seems to be that of the correlation. By ‘correlation’ we mean the idea according to which we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other. We will henceforth call correlationism any current of thought which maintains the unsurpassable character of correlation so defined. Consequently, it becomes possible to say that every philosophy which disavows naive realism has become a variant of correlationism (Meillassoux 2009: 5, original emphasis).
For it could be that contemporary philosophers have lost the great outdoors, the absolute outside of pre-critical thinkers: that outside which was not relative to us, and which was given as indifferent to its own givenness to be what it is, existing in itself regardless of whether we are thinking it or not; that outside which thought could explore with the legitimate feeling of being on foreign territory – of being entirely elsewhere (Meillassoux 2009: 7, original emphasis)
Meillassoux, in particular, is interested in the production of claims about reality that are extra-human, either ancestral, that is, any reality anterior to the emergence of the human species, or shown as arche-fossil, particularly through materials indicating the existence of an ancestral reality, the material support such as an isotope whose rate of radioactive decay enables the dating of things (Meillassoux 2009: 10). How then can we make claims about things that are not only non-human, but which temporally predate the very existence of humans at all. Whilst Meillassoux was careful to delimit his philosophical investigations to those that pre-date humans, and thus the problematic of a correlationist claim in relation to it, and here there isn’t time to explore the problematic nature of the formulation of a realist science which underpins his claims, it does open the door for speculative work on the nature of the universe per se. Indeed, this is where object-oriented ontology comes into play, particularly with the work of Levi Bryant, Nick Srnicek and Graham Harman (2011) – and here we should note that Meillassoux rejects the labels of both object-oriented ontology and speculative realism. Bryant et al claim,
[In] ‘The Speculative Turn’, one can detect the hints of something new. By contrast with the repetitive continental focus on texts, discourses, social practices, and human finitude, the new breed of thinkers is turning once more towards reality itself. While it is difficult to find explicit positions common to all the thinkers… all have certainly rejected the traditional focus on textual critique… all of them, in one way or another, have begun speculating once more about the nature of reality independently of thought and of humans more generally (Bryant, Srnicek and Harman 2011: 3).
Whilst there are significant difference between the various ‘speculative realism’ positions, this attempt to develop a strong anti-correlationist approach seems both significant and interesting philosophically, and something, I should add, that I am broadly sympathetic to. To my mind, however, there remains a significant problem of theorising non-human relations whilst simultaneously being constrained within the categories and limitations of human thought, what we might call the anti-correlationist paradox, even when mediated through mathematics, physics, or technical apparatus that gives the appearance of objectivity or non-human thought (and here I am thinking particularly in terms of the gigantic, see Berry [2011b]).
However, here we must return to the particular claims of Bogost (2012) and his notion of developing a speculative philosophy to think through the relations between objects, as he writes:
If ontology is the philosophical study of existence, then object-oriented ontology puts things at the center of being. We humans are elements, but not the sole elements of philosophical interest. OOO contends that nothing has special status, but that everything exists equally–plumbers, cotton, bonobos, DVD players, and sandstone, for example. OOO steers a path between scientific naturalism and social relativism, drawing attention to things at all scales and pondering their nature and relations with one another as much as ourselves… My version of object-oriented ontology, outlined in my new book Alien Phenomenology, or What it’s Like to Be a Thing, concerns the experience of objects. What is it like to be a bonobo or a satellite or a pixel? (Bogost 2012).
Putting aside the unlikelihood of discerning ‘what it is like to be’ something like a pixel – indeed, the very question seems to me to be confusing the fundamental quality of human beings (as dasein) able to raise the question of their own being with that of a pixel, which prime facie does not (Heidegger 1978). Instead, we should concentrate on whether this ‘alien phenomenology’ can assist in understanding or explaining the New Aesthetic (see Bogost 2008). Bogost again,
But the true alien might be unrecognizable; it might not have an intelligence akin to our intelligence, or even one we could recognize as intelligence. Rather than wondering if alien beings exist in the cosmos, let’s assume that they are all around us, everywhere, at all scales. Everything is an alien to everything else. It is ultimately impossible for one thing to understand the experience of another, but we can speculate about the withdrawn, inner experience of things based on a combination of evidence–the exhaust they leave behind–and poetics–the speculative work we do to characterize that experience (Bogost 2012).
Here, we have moved (too quickly in my mind) from the possibility of human beings being able to know what it is to ‘be’ an alien object, to a notion of an ‘intelligence’ that we could ‘recognize as intelligence’, and then to the ‘experience’ of said alien object. Further, we are told that it is ‘ultimately impossible for one thing to understand the experience of another’ but we can ‘speculate’ about it. Here is the crucial point of weakness in this position. We are no longer involved in realism, but have moved to speculative philosophy, one that has moved towards a kind of idealism that doesn’t recognise itself as such. I think that this is partially due to the soporific quality of litanies that the OOO are so keen to list at every opportunity, as if the mere act of listing has reaffirmed their realism. For example, Bogost uses the litany of ‘airports, sandstone, koalas, climate, toaster pastries, kudzu, the International 505 racing dinghy, and the Boeing 787 Dreamliner’ (Bogost 2012).
Again, the anti-correlationist paradox raises it head in the use of human categories such as ‘being’, ‘intelligence’, ‘experience’, wielded to describe ‘alien’ objects’ interiority without any recourse to evidence beyond mere speculation. Not that this method is wholly unproductive, indeed, Bogost’s claims that it is ‘weird’ points to his attempt to do something unexpected or different – my point is that it probably won’t be weird enough, limited as it remains, within the boundary of human thought. Indeed, OOO rapidly continues the use of human categories even as it is articulating what it considers to be a non-anthropomorophic mode. For example, Borenstein argues,
[New Aesthetic] want[s] to know what CCTV means for social networks, what book scanning means for iOS apps, and what face detection means for fashion. And again these objects are not just interesting to each other as a set of constraints and affordances for the objects’ human makers but for the hidden inner lives of the objects themselves throughout their existence (Borenstein 2012).
Does the idea of ‘inner lives’ even make any sense for iOS apps, CCTV or pixels? Following Heidegger (1978), I would even argue that it doesn’t make much sense for humans, let alone SunChips and Doritos. Nonetheless, Bogost moves to his attempt to link OOO and New Aesthetics by a notion of ‘Alien Aesthetics’,
[T]his Alien Aesthetics would not try to satisfy our human drive for art and design, but to fashion design fictions that speculate about the aesthetic judgments of objects. If computers write manifestos, if Sun Chips make art for Doritos, if bamboo mocks the bad taste of other grasses–what do these things look like? Or for that matter, when toaster pastries convene conferences or write essays about aesthetics, what do they say, and how do they say it? (Bogost, quoted in Jackson 2012)
Again we see the anti-correlationist paradox inasmuch as object are now considered to make ‘aesthetic judgments’ of other objects. Patently, ‘pastries’ do not ‘write essays about aesthetics’ nor about anything else. Indeed, in trying so hard to avoid anthropomorphism ontologically, Bogost appears to allow it in the backdoor through metaphor. Here we might nod towards Heidegger who emphasised the importance of practices in understanding being at all (for Dasein), so the writing of essays is crucial to the understanding of being a student, for example, not to being a pastry (Heidegger 1978). We are thus left with speculative fictional statements akin to vignettes about objects whose ‘truth’ or ‘correctness’ Bogost considers irrelevant and therefore begins to bear too many similarities to relativism.
So where should we look for help in understanding the New Aesthetic?
Previously, I have proposed a notion of computationality (Berry 2011a, Berry 2012a, Berry 2012b), and others have also suggested ‘remediation’ as a useful way of exploring it (Grusin 2012). Certainly, there are many exciting avenues to explore, including possible alternative formulations of OOO, but I would just like to consider three.
The first is an approach broadly covered by the term software studies (see Berry 2011a; Manovich 2001, 2008; Manovich and Douglas 2009), and its sister field, critical code studies (Marino 2006), both of which already have an orientation towards the aesthetic and experiential, as well as the material (Kittler 1997, 1999). It seems to me that an understanding of the underlying structural and sub-structural level of code/software may give important insights into the aesthetic eruptions or surface representations that are in evidence within the New Aesthetic.
The second approach would be what we might call a Heideggerian Aesthetics, which explores ‘an artwork that already embodies the transition between this age and the next and which is thus capable of helping to inaugurate that future age, here and now’ (Thomson 2011). Indeed, as Iain Thomson explains,
Heidegger’s defining hope for art, in other words, is that works of art could manifest and thereby help usher in a new understanding of the being of entities, a literally “post-modern” understanding of what it means for an entity to be, a postmodern ontology which would no longer understand entities either as modern objects to be controlled or as late-modern resources to be optimised (Thomson 2011).
The third approach is broadly known as media archaeology, with its strong orientation to both the historical and aesthetic, position it very favourably in being able to provide important theoretical interventions for the New Aesthetic and new ‘ways of seeing’ (see Parikka 2010, Parikka and Huhtamo 2011). Media archaeology attempts to read the new against the grain of the past, and its focus on neglected, forgotten or suppressed media seems extremely relevant to the New Aesthetic’s presentation of what seems to be a ‘false digital’ or certainly ‘historical digital’ digital.
 This is an updating Twitter Stream, some examples include: (1) “NArt Bot @NArtBot RT @timdenee: I really have to fight the urge to write it off as a bunch of twee pretentious bullshit. #newaesthetic”, “RT @CreatorsProject: A tight circle of net artists just reinvented the wheel: bit.ly/Jb80po #NewAesthetic”, “NArt Bot @NArtBot RT @flourides: tell me what i gotta do to get kicked out of the #NewAesthetic i’ll do whatever”, “Johannes Kleske @jkleske “Memes require instant satisfaction. Art requires depth.” How full of yourself can you be? #newaesthetic j.mp/Ii56y7”, “Marcus • Leis Allion @_MLA Isn’t it only those critical of the #NewAesthetic that refer to it as something it is not, i.e., art/art movement in 20thC sense?”.
 Many thanks to Michael Dieter for the post-Kantian suggestion.
 There are a lot of areas of interest for researchers in the Digital Humanities in terms of understanding and exploring cultural works, there are also exciting opportunities to explore both the close and distant reading implications of the New Aesthetic (Berry 2012c, Gold 2012). Additionally Platform Studies (Bogost and Montfort 2009) and Expressive Processing (Wardrip-Fruin 2009) are both very interesting approaches with a focus on the materiality of the computer.
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