Category Archives: compactant

Digital/Post-digital

I want to take up the question of the definition of the “post-digital” again because I think that what the post-digital is pointing towards as a concept is the multiple moments in which the digital was operative in various ways (see Berry 2014a, 2014b, 2014c). Indeed, historicising the “digital” can be a useful, if not crucial step, in understanding the transformation(s) of digital technologies. That is, we are at a moment whereby we are able to survey the various constellations of factors that made up a particular historical configuration around the digital and in which the “digital” formed an “imagined” medium to which existing analogue mediums where often compared, and to which the digital tended to be seen as suffering from a lack, e.g. not a medium for “real” news, for film, etc. etc. The digital was another medium to place at the end (of the list) after all the other mediums were counted – and not a very good one. It was where the digital was understood, if it were understood at all, as a complement to other media forms, somewhat lacking, geeky, glitchy, poor quality and generally suited for toys, like games or the web, or for “boring” activities like accountancy or infrastructure. The reality is that in many ways the digital was merely a staging post, whilst computing capacity, memory, storage and display resolutions could fall in price/rise in power enough to enable a truly “post-digital” environment that could produce new mediated experiences. That is, that it appears that the digital was “complementary” but the post-digital is zero-sum. Here is my attempt to sum up some of the moments that I think might serve as a provocation to debate the post-digital.


 DIGITAL 


 POST-DIGITAL 
Non-zero sum Zero-sum
Objects Streams
Files Clouds
Programs Apps
SQL databases NoSQL storage
HTML node.js/APIs
Disciplinary Control
Administration Logistics
Connect Always-on
Copy/Paste Intermediate
Digital Computal
Hybrid Unified
Interface Surface
BitTorrent Scraping
Participation Sharing/Making
Metadata Metacontent
Web 2.0 Stacks
Medium Platform
Games World
Software agents Compactants
Experience Engagement
Syndication Push notification
GPS Beacons  (IoTs)
Art Aesthetics
Privacy Personal Cloud
Plaintext Cryptography
Responsive Anticipatory
Tracing Tracking
Surfing Reading

figure 1: Digital to Post-Digital Shifts 
This the table offers constellations or moments within a “digital” as opposed to a “post-digital” ecology, as it were, and, of course, a provocation to thought. But they can also be thought of as ideal types that can provide some conceptual stability for thinking, in an environment of accelerating technical change and dramatic and unpredictable social tensions in response to this. The question then becomes to what extent can the post-digital counter-act the tendencies towards domination of specific modes of thought in relation to instrumentality, particularly manifested in computational devices and systems? For example, the contrast between the moments represented by Web 2.0 / Stacks provides an opportunity for thinking about how new platforms have been built on the older Web 2.0 systems, in some cases replacing them, and in others opening up new possibilities which Tiziana Terranova (2014) has pointed to in her intriguing notion of “Red Stacks”, for example (and in contrast to Bruce Sterlings notion of “The Stacks”, e.g. Google, Facebook, etc.). Here I have been thinking of the notion of the digital as representing a form of “weak computation/computationality”, versus the post-digital as “strong computation/computationality”, and what would the consequences be for a society that increasingly finds that the weak computational forms (CDs, DVDs, laptops, desktops, Blogs, RSS, Android Open Source Platform [AOSP], open platforms and systems, etc.) are replaced by stronger, encrypted and/or locked-in versions (FairPlay DRM, Advanced Access Content System [AACS], iPads, Twitter, Push-notification, Google Mobile Services [GMS], Trackers, Sensors, ANTICRISIS GIRL, etc.)?  

These are not just meant to be thought of in a technical register, rather the notion of “weak computation” points towards a “weak computational sociality” and “strong computation” points towards a “strong computation sociality”, highlighting the deeper penetration of computational forms into everyday life within social media and push-notification, for example. Even as the post-digital opens up new possibilities for contestation, e.g. megaleaks, data journalism, hacks, cryptography, dark nets, torrents, piratization, sub rosa sharing networks, such as the Alexandria Project, etc. and new opportunities for creating, sharing and reading knowledges, the “strong computation” of the post-digital always already suggests the shadow of computation reflected in heightened tracking, surveillance and monitoring of a control society. The post-digital points towards a reconfiguration of publishing away from the (barely) digital techniques of the older book publishing industry, and towards the post-digital singularity of Amazonized publishing with its accelerated instrumentalised forms of softwarized logistics whilst also simultaneously supporting new forms of post-digital craft production of books and journals, and providing globalised distribution. How then can we think about these contradictions in the unfolding of the post-digital and its tendencies towards what I am calling here “strong computation”, and in what way, even counter-intuitively, does the digital (weak computation) offer alternatives, even as marginal critical practice, and the post-digital (strong computation) create new critical practices (e.g. critical engineering), against the increasing interconnection, intermediation and seamless functioning and operation of the post-digital as pure instrumentality, horizon, and/or imaginary.  



Bibliography

Berry, D. M. (2014a) The Post-Digital, Stunlaw, accessed 14/1/2014, http://stunlaw.blogspot.co.uk/2014/01/the-post-digital.html

Berry, D. M. (2014b) Critical Theory and the Digital, New York: Bloomsbury.

Berry, D. M. (2014c) On Compute, Stunlaw, accessed 14/1/2014,  http://stunlaw.blogspot.co.uk/2014/01/on-compute.html

Terranova, T. (2014) Red stack attack! Algorithms, capital and the automation of the common, EuroNomade, accessed 20/2/2014,  http://www.euronomade.info/?p=1708


Advertisements

The Post-Digital

Courbet, Gustave-The Painter’s Studio; A Real Allegory (1855)

As we increasingly find that the world of computational abundance is normalised, the application of cheap digital technologies to manage or partially augmented traditionally analogue experiences, technologies and practices will doubtless grow.[1] That is, the power of “compute” is growing both in breadth and depth as it permeates society and culture (see Davies 2013; Berry 2014a). All around us we are increasingly surrounded by new fields and flows of computation that co-construct and stabilise a new artifice for the human sensorium – streams, clouds, sensors and infrastructures. Not unlike previous moments in which mediums become part of everyday life, this new field is noticeable for its ability to modulate and transform itself through the use of algorithms and code. Not just as a general plasticity but as a flexible structure that adapts to context and environment tailored to the individual, or perhaps better, dividual, of the computational age. This new field of computation is not necessarily top-down and corporate controlled either. Thus, we see at a bottom-up level, the emergence of a market in cheap digital processors that enable the implementation of innovative new forms of culture and cultural experimentation. We might think of these moments as part of the constellation I am calling the “post-digital” (see also Berry 2013a; Cramer 2013; Cox 2013; Philipsen 2013; Sable 2012).

Museu de Arte de São Paulo (MASP), 1968.
Designed by Lina Bo Bardi

Thus, the historical distinction between the digital and the non-digital becomes increasingly blurred, to the extent that to talk about the digital presupposes a disjuncture in our experience that makes less and less sense. Thus computation becomes spatial in its implementation, embedded within the environment and part of the texture of life itself which can be walked around, touched, manipulated and interacted with in a number of ways and means – life becomes mediated in and through the computal (Berry 2014b). Indeed, in a similar way in which the distinction between “being online” or “being offline” has become anachronistic, with our always-on smart phones and tablets and widespread wireless networking technologies, so too, perhaps, the term “digital” describes a world of the past.

Which is not to say that time is not an important aspect to computation in this post-digital world. The compressive effects of computation and the flattening metaphors and visual language of computation tend towards an encounter, maximised perhaps by its tendency toward spatiality, to transform time from a diachronic to a synchronic experience. Indeed, history itself may be re-presented through the screen through a number of computation functions and methods that make it seem geometric, flat and simultaneous. A sense of history is then a sense of real-time flows, not so much distant and elusive, whether as cultural or individual memory, but here and now, spectacular and vividly represented and re-presented. Time in this sense is the time of technical time, and the history attendant to it is technical history, presented through databases, code and algorithms.

Thus within a time of computational abundance we might think in relation to the question of the “post-digital”, in as much as we are rapidly entering a moment when the difficulty will be found in encountering culture outside of digital media. Or perhaps the non-digital will largely be the preserve of the elite (by choice, education and wealth) or the very poor (by necessity).  The detritus of society will be cast into the non-digital and the fading and ephemeral will be preserved within computational databanks only, if it is preserved at all. Indeed, even the non-digital becomes bound up in the preservation possibilities offered by the digital,

Non-digital media technologies… become post-digital when they are not simply nostalgically revived, but functionally repurposed in (often critical) relation to digital media technologies: zines that become anti- or non-blogs, vinyl as anti-CD, cassette tapes as anti-mp3, analog film as anti-video (Cramer 2013).

Computal Surfaces: main stage for the
Republican convention in Tampa, Fla (2012)

In a post-digital age, whether something is digital or not will no longer be seen as the essential question. Or rather, the question as to whether something is or is not “digital” will be increasingly meaningless as all forms of media become themselves mediated, produced, accessed, distributed or consumed through digital devices and technologies. This is, to move away from a comparative notion of the digital, contrasted with other material forms such as paper, celluloid or photopaper, and instead begin to think about how the digital is modulated within various materialities. It is also when the contrast between “digital” and “analogue” no longer makes sense either. This spectrum of the digital, a distribution across an axis of more of less computal, gives rise to the expectation of the always already computational of everyday life.

Muffwiggler, Modular Synth Meetup,
University of Sussex (2013).

Thus, the post-digital is represented by and indicative of a moment when the computational has become both hegemonic and post-screenic (see Bosma 2013; Ludovico 2013). As Cramer argues, “the distinction between ‘old’ and ‘new’ media collapses in theory as well as in practice. As Kenneth Goldsmith observes, his students ‘mix oil paint while Photoshopping and scour flea markets'” (Cramer 2013). The “digital” is then understood as a previous historic moment when computation as digitality was understood in opposition to the analogue, although that is not to say that it will not remain as a marginal notion with related practices within post-digitality. Thus, under our contemporary conditions it might be better to think about modulations of the digital or different intensities of the computational as a post-digital moment rather than digital versus analogue as such. We should therefore critically think about the way in which cadences of the computational are made and materialised. In other words, notions of quantitative and qualitative dimensions of “compute” will be increasingly important for thinking about culture, economics, society, politics and everyday life. Tracing power will in many cases be tracing compute, both in terms of the reservoirs of compute managed by gigantic computational Stacks, but also in the places where compute is thin and poorly served. By Stacks, I am referring to the corporations that increasingly rely on computational “technology stacks” for profit and power, such as Google, Apple, Facebook, Twitter and Amazon but also the technical imaginary formed through the notion of these stacks as a diagram (Berry 2013b).

Cuddlebot“: low-tech touch/haptic sensing hardware (2013)

Compute as already always part of life might also herald that the moment of the digital as digitalisation is already the past, and that new challenges lie ahead for thinking about the way in which the computal saturates our culture, institutions and everyday life in varying degrees of modularity and intensity. This growth in computation has put citizens at an obvious disadvantage in a society that not only has historically tended to disavow the digital as a form of knowledge or practice, but also has not seen computational thinking or skills as part of the educational requirements of a well-informed citizen. For example, the lack of understanding of the importance of encryption and cryptography in digital society was humbly described recently by Glenn Greenwald, who one might have thought to have been better schooled in these technologies (Greenwald 2013). Indeed, as computer power has increased, so has the tendency to emulate older media forms to provide content within simulations of traditional containers, such as “e”-books, through techniques of skeuomorphism and glossy algorithmic interface design – rather than learning and teaching computational practices as such. This, perhaps, has the advantage of new computational forms being able to be used and accessed without the requisite computational skills to negotiate the new literary machines of computation, such as the underlying logics, structures, processes and code. However, it also means that in many cases today, we are unable to read what we write, and are not always the writers of the systems that are built around us (Berry 2011; Oliver, Savičić and Vasiliev 2011; Allen 2013). This illiteracy does not seem to be the ideal conditions for the emergence of an informed and educated citizenry to engage with the challenges and dangers of a fully softwarized post-digital society. It also points to the urgent need for a critical and engaged Bildung for the post-digital world, if it is not to become precariously post-democratic.


Notes

[1] This post was inspired by attending “Muffwiggler” at the University of Sussex, Saturday 16 November 2013, organised by Andrew Duff, and funded by the Centre for Digital Material Culture. The event was notionally a homage to analogue synths, but in reality was colonised by digital/analogue hybrid synthesisers and controllers which were properly post-digital in both form and function. More information http://www.muffwiggler.com and http://www.flickr.com/photos/du_ff/sets/72157632801557258/

Bibliography

Allen, J. (2013) Critical Infrastructure, accessed 31/12/2013, http://post-digital.projects.cavi.dk/?p=356

Berry, D. M. (2011) The Philosophy of Software, London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Berry, D. M. (2013a) Post-Digital Humanities, Stunlaw, accessed 30/12/2013,  http://stunlaw.blogspot.co.uk/2013/10/post-digital-humanities.html

Berry, D. M. (2013b) Digital Breadcrumbs, Stunlaw, accessed 30/12/2013, http://stunlaw.blogspot.co.uk/2013/10/digital-breadcrumbs.html

Berry, D. M. (2014a) On Compute, Stunlaw, accessed 05/01/2014, http://stunlaw.blogspot.co.uk/2014/01/on-compute.html

Berry, D. M. (2014b) Critical Theory and the Digital, New York, Continuum/Bloomsbury Academic.

Bosmas, J. (2013) Post-Digital is Post-Screen – Shaping a New Visuality, accessed 30/12/2013, http://post-digital.projects.cavi.dk/?p=580

Cox, G. (2013) some old problems with post–anything (draft version), accessed 30/12/2013, http://post-digital.projects.cavi.dk/?p=230

Cramer, F. (2013) Post-digital: a term that sucks but is useful (draft 2), accessed 30/12/2013, http://post-digital.projects.cavi.dk/?p=295

Davies, J. (2013) Compute Power with Energy- Efficiency, accessed 30/12/2013, http://developer.amd.com/wordpress/media/2013/06/Compute_Power_with_Energy-Efficiency_Jem_AMD_v1.1.pdf

Greenwald, G. (2013) 30c3 Keynote, Chaos Computer Club, accessed 30/12/2013,  http://media.ccc.de/browse/congress/2013/30C3_-_5622_-_en_-_saal_1_-_201312271930_-_30c3_keynote_-_glenn_greenwald_-_frank.html

Ludovico, A. (2013) Post Digital Publishing, Hybrid and Processual Objects in Print, accessed 30/12/2013, http://post-digital.projects.cavi.dk/?p=323

Oliver, J. Savičić, G. and Vasiliev, D. (2011) Critical Engineering Manifesto, accessed 31/12/2013, http://criticalengineering.org

Philipsen, L. (2013) Do not Return to Sender – Why post-digital aesthetic research should actually distinguish between artist, critics, and audience, accessed 30/12/2013, http://post-digital.projects.cavi.dk/?p=350

Sable, D. (2012) A “Post Digital” World, Really?, Google Think Insights, accessed 30/12/2013, http://www.google.com/think/articles/a-post-digital-world-really.html

New Book: Life in Code and Software: Mediated life in a complex computational ecology

Life in Code and Software (cover image by Michael Najjar)

New book out in 2012 on Open Humanities PressLife in Code and Software: Mediated life in a complex computational ecology. 

 

This book explores the relationship between living, code and software. Technologies of code and software increasingly make up an important part of our urban environment. Indeed, their reach stretches to even quite remote areas of the world. Life in Code and Software introduces and explores the way in which code and software are becoming the conditions of possibility for human living, crucially forming a computational ecology, made up of disparate software ecologies, that we inhabit. As such we need to take account of this new computational envornment and think about how today we live in a highly mediated, code-based world. That is, we live in a world where computational concepts and ideas are foundational, or ontological, which I call computationality, and within which, code and software become the paradigmatic forms of knowing and doing. Such that other candidates for this role, such as: air, the economy, evolution, the environment, satellites, etc., are understood and explained through computational concepts and categories.

 

 

 

The New Bifurcation? Object-Oriented Ontology and Computation

Alan Turing

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)

04/06/2012 13:34

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.

Chales Darwin

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).

Bibliography

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

Tagged , , , ,

The Uses of Object-Oriented Ontology

Object-oriented ontologists (SR/OOO) argue that we must no longer make the correlationist error of privileging the being of humans within ontology, instead moving to a ‘democracy of objects’ (see Bryant 2011). In this, they follow the other speculative realists in attempting to develop a notion of ‘flat ontology’. This flat ontology is one in which hierarchy is banished and therefore bears a striking resemblance to the universe described by science, albeit differing in not seeking reductionist explanations in terms of causation, etc. Nonetheless, there seems to be no World, in the Heideggerian sense, for the speculative realist, who, observing the relative position of philosophy vis a vis science within human culture, endeavors to replicate or supplement scientific inquiry without human culture, by providing a speculative and philosophical description of the universe through the notion of withdrawn or partially visible objects – Morton calls this ekphrasis or “ultra-vivid description” (Morton 2011: 170). That is, to refute the presumed correlationism of scientific practice. In most varieties of SR/OOO, therefore, I think they are actually undertaking object-oriented onticology – and it is important to note that Graham Harman considers himself to be writing object orient philosophy (formerly OOP but increasingly Harman uses OOO), previously distinct from object oriented ontology (OOO, which was coined by Levi Bryant) and other branches of speculative realism (SR). That is, a position more interested in beings, rather than Being, something I discuss further below. For example, Ian Bogost (2012a) outlines a system of thought in which no object has precedence or hierarchy over another, and yet all share a commonality which, following Heidegger, Bogost calls being and we might understand as ‘objectness’ or ‘being an object’.[1] This suggests a revealing paradox raised by trying to place a general case (being) as equivalent to the particular (beings) within this flat ontology, and which is justified by virtue of the singularity of what he calls a ‘tiny ontology’ (Bogost 2012a: 22).
So, what is at stake in the project of object-oriented ontology – a philosophy whose readers consists of humans who are actively solicited? Indeed, as part of this project, object-oriented ontology seeks to convince the reader of her own experiential equalityin relation to the quantitative variety of experiences of different beings within the universe, human and non-human (see Charlesworth 2012). This, of course, has political implications. Here, I want to explore how and why this group of self-defined ‘anti-correlationists’ work so hard at a rhetorical attempt to convince its readers as to the importance of the object-oriented ontology (SR/OOO) project. We might also note that the term object-oriented philosophy has knowingly borrowed its label from object-oriented programming, a method of structured computer software design and programming. I suspect that there is an underlying and unconscious use of the assumptions of an ontotheology of computationality  (or glitch ontology) underlying “object-oriented ontology”, something I intend to return to more explicitly in a later article (but see Bogost 2009b for a related discussion of this; also Berry 2011).
Again, I think it is useful to turn to Ian Bogost’s work as he clearly outlines object-oriented ontology in Alien Phenomenology: or What It’s Like To Be A Thing.  This book is written to be widely read and Bogost has acknowledged as much on different fora. More so, its intended readership is clearly and unmistakably human.
We ought to think in public. We ought to be expanding our spheres of influence and inspiration with every page we write. We ought to be trying to influence the world, not just the blinkered group that goes to our favorite conference. And that principle ought to hold no matter your topic of interest, be it Proust or videogames or human factors engineering or the medieval chanson de geste. No matter your field, it can be done, and people do it all the time. They’re called “good books.”… And I’ve tried very hard as an author to learn how to write better and better books, books that speak to a broader audience without compromising my scholarly connections, books that really ought to exist as books (Bogost 2011; see also Bogost 2012: 88-91).
So, rather than asking what it is like to be a thing, I want to explore what is the use of knowing what it is to be a thing. In other words, we might ask what are the uses of object-oriented ontology? What are the practices of object-oriented ontologists, and how do they reflect upon their own, mostly discursive practices, and their relationships with ‘objects’?
Object-oriented ontology can be understood as a descriptive project for philosophy, which Bogost, following Harman, christens Ontography (Bogost 2012a: 36), a “name for a general inscriptive strategy, one that uncovers the repleteness of units [Bogost’s term for objects] and their interoperability” (Bogost 2012a: 38).[2]For Bogost, this project involves the creation of lists or litanies [5], a “group of items loosely joined not by logic or power or use but by the gentle knot of the comma”, he explains, “Ontography is an aesthetic set theory, in which a particular configuration is celebrated merely on the basis of its existence” (Bogost 2012a: 38).[3] Here we see why Bogost is keen to draw out the similarities to the creation of aesthetic collections in the New Aesthetic (see Berry 2012, Bogost 2012b). Drawing on Harman, Bogost describes why the “rhetoric of lists” is useful to a philosophical project:
Some readers may… dismiss them as an “incantation” or “poetics” of objects. But most readers will not soon grow tired, since the rhetorical power of these rosters of beings stems from their direct opposition to the flaws of current mainstream philosophy… The best stylistic antidote to this grim deadlock is a repeated sorcerer’s chant of the multitude of things that resist any unified empire (Harman quoted in Bogost 2012a: 39)
Whilst the claims of a “grim deadlock” or “current mainstream philosophy” remain undefined and unexamined, for Bogost making lists “hones a virtue: the abandonment of anthropocentric narrative coherence in favor of worldly detail” (Bogost 2012a: 42). An attempt, we might say, to get closer to the buzzing variety of the ‘real’. Further he explains, “Lists of objects without explication can do the philosophical work of drawing our attention towards them with greater attentiveness” (Bogost 2012a: 45). An ontograph, he claims, is a “crowd” (Bogost 2012a: 59). They are also, we might note in passing, extremely partial lists, reflecting the rhetorical intentions of the litany reciter and only a description in the weakest sense of the term (see appendix I below).[4]
Bogost attempts to circumvent this problem by the application of a method he calls carpentry, after Harman and Lingis who use the term to refer to the way in which “things fashion one another and the world at large” (Bogost 2012a: 93). Bogost introduces philosophical software carpentry to implement the creation of what he calls “ontographic tools to characterize the diversity of being” (Bogost 2012a: 94). Whilst I consider this a brilliant move by Bogost, I hesitate to label it as philosophy. One of these tools he calls the Latour Litanizer, which generates “random” litanies based on randomized selections of Wikipedia pages (although it doesn’t appear to have been used within Alien Phenomenology itself, which has a constant refrain in the choice of items in the litanies, see Appendix, below). Whilst an interesting example of software litany creation, it is hardly divorced from its programmer (see Berry 2011). This is further demonstrated in the example of the “image toy” that selected random photographs from the Flickr website, and occasionally therefore showed images of women, one of which was in a playboy bunny suit. In response to some criticism, Bogost was required to hand-code a specific query that preventedthe operation of certain aspects of philosophical software carpentry, namely no women in bunny suits, defined in the code as:
Options.Tags = “(object OR thing OR stuff) AND NOT (sexy OR woman OR girl)”
I am working through Ian Bogost’s (2012) work as a representative example of object-oriented ontology and allow it to stand in for the varieties of speculative realism. Whilst acknowledging some significant differences in the content of their philosophical systems, the general form of their argument seems to me to remain fairly consistent, claiming that philosophy made a catastrophic error following Kant into correlationism – the mistaken belief in the importance of the human as a co-constructor of knowledge and understanding. I want to challenge this claim on two grounds, one a performative contradiction in relation to the selection of intended readers capable of being influenced by the persuasive discourse of object-oriented ontology. Secondly, on the basis of what I perceive to be an unexamined formalism which is implicit in the construction of the speculative realist philosophical system. Both of these I believe are highly damaging to the claims of the speculative realist position, but the second criticism points towards a potential political conservatism at work within the project of speculative realism more generally. These are not the only weaknesses in the object-oriented ontology position, but I think they are significant enough to warrant discussion.
One striking aspect to the project outlined within Alien Phenomenology, is the aim towards a phenomenological practice. Bogost writes, “As philosophers, our job is to amplify… the noise of objects… Our job is to write the speculative fictions of their processes, of their… operations… Our job is to get our hands dirty…” (Bogost 2012a: 34). In contrast to Marx’s dictum that philosophers have hitherto tried to understand the world, and that philosophers should therefore aim to changeit, Bogost proposes that we should describeit or create other actors to describe it for us, by making philosophical software (see Bogost 2012a: 110). As Bogost himself notes,
“Why do we give the Civil War soldier, the guilty Manhattan project physicist, the oval-headed alien anthropomorph, and the intelligent celestial race so much more credence than the scoria cone, the obsidian fragment, the gypsum crystal, the capsicum pepper, and the propane flame? When we welcome these things into scholarship, poetry, science, and business, it is only to ask how they relate to human productivity, culture, and politics. We’ve been living in a tiny prison of our own devising, one in which all the stuff that concerns us are the fleshy beings that are our kindred and the stuffs with which we stuff ourselves” (Bogost 2012a: 3, emphasis added).
Putting to one side the somewhat doubtful claim that the former litany is given more credence by anyone except, perhaps, humanities scholars, here we see a claim to a collective ‘we’ that Bogost wishes to speak for and to. Further, he adds, “Let me be clear: we need not discount human beings to adopt an object-oriented position – after all, we ourselves are of the world as much as musket buckshot and gypsum and space shuttles. But we can no longer claim that our existence is special as existence” (Bogost 2012a: 8).
Indeed, if we were to take this claim seriously then one would be driven to wonder why Bogost is writing his book at all, but of course, “musket buckshot and gypsum and space shuttles” cannot be the addressees of this text as patently they do not read. So object-oriented ontology (OOO) is trying to do two things here, on the one hand deny the specialness of humans’ existence in relation to other objects, whilst simultaneously having to write for them and to make arguments supporting their claims – thereby acknowledging the very special existence that humans possess, namely qualities of understanding, taking a stand on their own being, etc. This is a classic performative contradiction. Whilst it would be perfectly legitimate to outline a formalist theory or methodological position that, for the sake of the approach, limits the requirement to treat human actors as particular or special in relation to others (this is the methodological innovation within Actor-Network Theory), it is quite another to then extend this claim into a philosophical system which is part of a special order of discourse particular to human beings, that is, philosophy. This so-called philosophical non-human turn, is interesting for its nihilistic and conservative implications, something we now turn to in detail.
For his part, Bogost (2012a) rejects that nihilism is present in his work, remarking,
[object-oriented ontology] “allows for the possibility of a new sort of humanism,” in which, as Harman adds, “humans will be liberated from the crushing correlational system.” For his part, Nick Srnicek offers opprobrium in place of optimism… “Do we need another analysis of how a cultural representation does symbolic violence to a marginal group? This is not to say that this work has been useless, just that it’s become repetitive” (Bogost 2012a: 132).
In this ‘liberation’ therefore, we are saved from the ‘crushing’ problem of repetitive accounts of marginal inequality and suffering. This is achieved by a new ‘humanism’ that rejects the human as having any special case, such that the marginal problems of women, LGBT, immigrants, asylum seekers, and the poor are replaced with the problem of a litany of objects such as “quarks, Elizabeth Bennet, single-malt scotch, Ford Mustang fastbacks, lychee fruit, love affairs, dereferenced pointers, Care Bears, sirocco winds, the Tri-City Mall, tort law, the Airbus A330, the five-hundred drachma note” (Bogost 2012a: 133).
He notes, “If we take seriously the idea that all objects recede interminably into themselves, then human perception becomes just one among many ways that objects might relate. To put things at the centre of a new metaphysics also requires us to admit that they do not exist just for us” (Bogost 2012a: 9). Leaving aside the question as to why we would want to apply that idea in the first place when it stands as hypothesis rather than expressing any form of evidence or proof, one might wonder how one is to judge between the different forms of perception in order to (re)present the litanies, let alone recognize them. This is a constant and unexamined problem within the domain of object-oriented philosophy (OOP) and is hardly dealt with by Harman’s notion of ‘metaphor’ or ‘alluding’ to things (Harman 2009b).
Bogost too wants to move away from the tricky epistemological problem of “access”, and instead he concentrates on metaphor as a means of understanding the way in which objects, within this system, interact. This, oddly, avoids the very real problem of mediation in object-oriented ontology and moves the focus onto a form of information transfer about objects, rather than the practice of making those objects and object-orient ontologists’ claims about them.  In effect, “metaphor” describes an operation whereby the properties of an object are ‘represented’ within another object in order to facilitate some form of interaction (which might be vicarious). Bogost writes,
Ontology is the philosophical study of existence. Object-oriented ontology (“OOO” for short) puts things at the center of this study. Its proponents contend that nothing has special status, but that everything exists equally–plumbers, cotton, bonobos, DVD players, and sandstone, for example. In contemporary thought, things are usually taken either as the aggregation of ever smaller bits (scientific naturalism) or as constructions of human behavior and society (social relativism). OOO steers a path between the two, drawing attention to things at all scales (from atoms to alpacas, bits to blinis), and pondering their nature and relations with one another as much with ourselves (Bogost 2009, see also Bogost 2012: 6).
This definition is helpful in a number of ways, firstly it demonstrates in the move towards a flat ontology the attention has shifted from ontology (being) to things/objects (beings). The definition of everything as a single thing, in this case an object/unit – is precisely the danger that Heidegger identified for philosophy. The ‘Being’ that explains everything, the ‘Good’ for Plato, “Substance” for Spinoza, and “Object” for object-oriented ontologists. As Bryant remarks, “there is only one type of being: objects. As a consequence, humans are not excluded, but are rather objects among the various types of objects that exist or populate the world, each with their own specific powers and capacities” (Bryant 2011: 20, original emphasis). This is a problem, as “correctness” in identifying objects as beings does not, for me, make a sufficient ontology, as Heidegger argues
What is essential is not what we presumably establish with exactness by means of instruments and gadgets; what is essential is the view in advance which opens up the field for anything to be established (Heidegger 1995: 60).
Bogost’s work is exemplary and highly suggestive for the work of software studies and platforms studies, however, his descriptive work is an example of object-oriented onticology, rather than ontology as such. For me, this is worthy and important work, we do need to map certain kinds of objects and their interrelations, however, we also need to be aware of the consequences of certain ways of seeing and categorizing the world. The problem seems to be that object-oriented ontology has no notion of an exemplar, no special case, no shining examples. As such, it quickly descends into endless lists and litanies. As Heidegger observes,
So it happens that we, lost as we usually are in the activities of observing and establishing, believe we “see” many things and yet do not see what really is (Heidegger 1995: 60).
To draw back to the original question: what are the uses of object-oriented ontology? It seems to me that object-oriented ontology and speculative realism together reflect a worrying spirit of conservatism within philosophy. They discount the work of human activity and place it alongside a soporific litany of naturalised objects – a method that points less at the interconnected nature of things, and gestures more towards the infinity of sameness, the gigantic of objects, the relentless distanceless of a total confusion of beings (see Harman 2009a for a discussion of things and objects). In short, experience as passive, disoriented and overwhelming, what Heidegger described as the “terror” of pure unmitigated flatness. And with that, philosophy becomes ‘cold’ philosophy, instead of understanding, we have lists and litanies of objects. Not so much philosophy as philosography, where rather than understanding the world, there is an attempt to describe it, and a worrying tendency towards the administration of things through a cataloguing operation.

These litanies – cascades and tumbling threads of polythetic classification – are linked merely by sequence, in which each item has no need to bear any resemblance to the ones before or after. They posit no relationships, and offers no narrative connections, and are therefore “essentially uncontrollable: at the limit so indeterminable that anything can be connected with anything” (Anderson 2012). But of course there is a connection, a link, a thread, performed by the philosographerwho chooses consciously or unconsciously the elements that make up the chain, and which are inscribed in books and articles. The use of object-oriented ontology, then, is bound up in its apparent conservatism which rallies at the temerity of human-beings to believe in themselves, their politics, and their specialness. Instead of World, object-oriented ontology posits universe, its founding principle is the Gigantic. As Heidegger explained:

1. The gigantism of the slowing down of history (from the staying away of essential decisions all the way to lack of history) in the semblance of speed and steer ability of “historical” [historisch] development and its anticipation.
2. The gigantism of the publicness as summation of everything homogeneous in favour of concealing the destruction and undermining of any passion for essential gathering.
3. The gigantism of the claim to naturalness in the semblance of what is self-evident and “logical”; the question-worthiness of being is placed totally outside questioning.
4. The gigantism of the diminution of beings in the whole in favour of the semblance of boundless extending of the same by virtue of unconditioned controllability. The single thing that is impossible is the word and representation of “impossible” (Heidegger 1999: 311).

To see what “shows up” to the philosographer one is unsurprised to see lists that are often contaminated by the products of neoliberal capitalism, objects which could not just appear of themselves, but required actual concrete labour of human beings to mediate their existence. For some reason, object-oriented ontology is attracted to the ephemerality of certain objects, as if by listing them they doubly affirm their commitment to realism, or that the longer the list the more ‘real’ it is. There is also the tendency to attempt to shock the reader by the juxtaposition of objects that would normally be thought to be categorically different – see Bogost (2009) for a discussion of whether including Harry Potter, blinis, and humans in a list was a striking enough example. These rhetorical strategies are interesting in thermselves, but I do not see them as replacements for philosophy. This demonstrates that the speculative realists have not escaped the so-called ‘correlationist circle’ (Harman 2009b), nor provided a model for thinking about the anti-correlationist paradox which remains present in their own work.  
We should therefore ask object-oriented ontologist to move beyond merely staring at the objects they see around them and catch sight of what is being listed in their descriptive litanies.  That is, examining the lists they produce, we can see what kind of objects they see as near, and which they see as far, and therefore question their claims to see objects all the way down (see Bogost 2012: 83-84). Yet as we examine these lists there appears to be a profound forgetting of Being, as it were, as they write both for and as subjects of Late Capitalism – a fact which remains hidden from them – and a seemingly major aporia in their work.
Appendix I – A Litany of Litanies[5]: Bogost’s (2012) Alien Phenomenology Litanies [6]
Page 3: “the Civil War soldier, the guilty Manhattan project physicist, the oval-headed alien anthropomorph, and the intelligent celestial race so much more credence than the scoria cone, the obsidian fragment, the gypsum crystal, the capsicum pepper, and the propane flame”
Page 5: “sea urchins, kudzu, enchiladas, quasars, and Tesla coils”, “harmonicas or tacos”
Page 6: “hammer, haiku, and hotdogs”, “quarks or neurons”, “plumbers, cotton, bonobos, DVD players, and sandstone”, “atoms to alpacas, bits to blinis”
Page 7: “scoria cone and the green chile”, “plate tectonics, enchiladas, tourism, or digestion”, “kudzu and grizzly bears”
Page 8: “Subways flood; pipes cool and crack; insects and weather slowly devour the wood frames of homes; the steel columns of bridges and skyscrapers corrode and buckle”, “plastic and lumber and steel”, “dogs, pigs, birds, and so forth”
Page 9: “plants, fungi, protists, bacteria, etc.”, “the potato and the cannabis [sic]”, “the dog or the raven”, “musket buckshot and gypsum and space shuttles”
Page 10: “molded plastic keys and controllers, motor-driven disc drives, silicon wafers, plastic ribbons, and bits of data”, “Subroutines and middleware libraries compiled into byte code or etched onto silicon, cathode ray tubes or LCD displays mated to be insulated, conductive cabling, and microprocessors executing machine instructions that enter and exit address buses”, “African elephant or the Acropora coral”, “computer or a microprocessor, or a ribbon cable”
Page 11: “The unicorn and the combine harvester, the color red and methyl alcohol, quarks and corrugated iron, Amelia Earhart and dyspepsia”
Page 12: “quarks, Harry Potter, keynote speeches, single-malt scotch, Land Rovers, lychee fruit, love affairs, dereferenced pointers, Mike ‘The Situation’ Sorrentino, bozons, horticulturalists, Mozambique, Super Mario Bros.”
Page 22: “yoghurt or tonsils or Winnie the Pooh”, “the cargo holds, the shipping containers, the hydraulic rams, the ballast water, the twist locks, the lashing rods, the crew, their sweaters, and the yarn out of which those garments are knit.”
Page 23: “cinder blocks and bendy straws and iron filings”
Page 25: “tailgate of a red pickup truck, the drum, handle, tailgate, asphalt, pepper, metal, and propane”, “pepper and iron, tailgate and Levi’s 501s, asphalt and pickup”, “brewing tea, shedding skin, photosynthesizing sugar, igniting compressed fuel.”
Page 26: “extraction, homogenization, distillation, refrigeration, etc.”
Page 27: “a mango, a willow tree, or a flat smooth stone”, “the cell… the revolving feeder… philology of the fictional Languages of Arda…”
Page 34: “Mountain summits and gypsum beds, chile roasters and buckshot, microprocessors and ROM chips”, “grease, juice, gunpowder and gypsum”
Page 39: “lighthouse, dragonfly, lawnmower, and barley”
Page 47: “Mullahs, and monsters, cushioned skyscrapers bent back on themselves”
Page 48: “black lampposts… the Snake River… a young girl…”
Page 49: “floodlight, screen print, Mastercard, rubber, asphalt, taco, Karmann Ghia, waste bin, oil stain”
Page 50: “tire an chassis, the ice milk and cup, the buckshot and soil”
Page 56: “puella, puellae, puellae (sic), puellam, puella
Page 58: “Dictionaries, grocery stores, Rio de Janeiro, La Brea, and Beverly”
Page 59: “doors, toasters and computers”
Page 61: “Smoke… dog teeth of a collar…. Chicken neck…”, “the taste of the honey-sweet ma’sal heated under the charcoal in the hookah’s bowl, or the sensation of foot on clutch as the collar of the synchro obtains a friction catch on the gear, or the smooth, thin appearance of broth as it separates from fat and bone in the soup pot”
Page 65: “Smoke and mouth, collar and gear, cartilage and water, bat and branch, roaster and green chile, button and input bus”
Page 74: “British men…, women, Congalese (sic), horses, and redwoods”, “fried chicken buckets, Pontiac Firebirds, and plastic picnicware”
Page 76: “the snowblower, the persimmon, the asphalt”
Page 109: “volcanoes, hookahs, muskets, gearshifts, gypsum, and soups”
Page 110: “painter, the seaman, the tightrope walker, or the banker”
Page 111: “people or toothbrushes or siroccos”, “words and ink and paper, a painting of pigments and canvas and medium, a philosophy of maxims and arguments and evidence, a house of studs and sheetrock and pipes”
Page 114: “Midgrade dealer D’Angelo Barksdale, detective James McNulty, kingpin Avon Barksdale, police lieutenant Cedric Daniels, stevedore Frank Sobotka, mayoral hopeful Tommy Carcetti, newspaper editor Gus Haynes”, “the Maryland Transit Authority bus that trundles through the Broadway East neighborhood; the synthetic morphine derivative diacetylmorphine hydrochloride, which forms the type of heroin power addicts freebase; Colt .45 (the firearm), and Colt 45 (the malt liquor)”, “dealers, cops, longshoreman, city councilmen, middle-school students, and journalists”
Page 115: “the compression heat of a diesel engine combustion chamber, or the manner by which corn or sugar additives increase the alcoholic content of malt, or the dissolution of heroin in water atop the concave surface of a spoon”
Page 117: “Clinker-built oak planks and fondant, keel, hull, and sponge cake, white-topped waves and spread frosting, oar stay and cookie”
Page 119: “the Kitchen-Aid 5 Quart Stand Mixer, the preheated oven, the mixing bowl, and the awaiting gullet”
Page 124: “religion, science, philosophy, custom, or opinion”, “flour granule, firearm, civil justice system, longship, fondant”, “cinder-blocks, Chicken McNuggets, freighter ships, and graffiti”
Page 133: “quarks, Elizabeth Bennet, single-malt scotch, Ford Mustang fastbacks, lychee fruit, love affairs, dereferenced pointers, Care Bears, sirocco winds, the Tri-City Mall, tort law, the Airbus A330, the five-hundred drachma note”
Notes
[1] I am grateful to Ian Bogost for arranging for a new copy of Alien Phenomenology to be sent to me after I received a curiously corrupted first copy.
[2] There is a striking computational construction to this statement and bares a deep affinity with the conceptualization within object-oriented programming.
[3] Elsewhere (Berry 2012) I have remarked on the computational nature of lists, more generally conceived as ‘collections’. Many programming languages were created to computationally manipulate lists, often called list-programming languages, such as LISP and PROLOG. The similarity with object-oriented ontology is extremely suggestive.
[4] Whether by accident or design Bogost compiles lists of seemingly masculine items of interest: gears, machinery, Mexican food, digestive issues, and computer technology. It is also notable that certain items repeat and certain themes are easy to discern. This may be an ironic move, but it also reveals the partiality of the list-making method.
[5] A litany is also what would be called in computer programming an array. The similarities to the use of arrays in computer programming which enables heterogeneous lists to be compiled and the use in OOP and OOO is suggestive. 
[5] This litany would not have been compiled without the kind invitation of Jill Rettberg and Scott Rettberg to present a paper on the New Aesthetic at the University of Bergen, 21/05/2012. On the return journey I opted to take the mountain train back to Oslo, which, lasting over six hours, gave me the time and distraction-free environment in which I could compile this list. I also learned that compiling litanies of litanies is at best painful and at worst something akin to mental torture. No objects were knowingly harmed in the compiling of this litany. 
Bibliography
Anderson, P. (2012) The Force of the Anomaly, The London Review of Books, April 26th 2012.
Berry, D. M. (2011) The Philosophy of Software: Code and Mediation in the Digital Age, London: Palgrave.
Berry, D. M. (2012) What is the New Aesthetic?, Stunlaw, accessed 22/05/2012, http://stunlaw.blogspot.com/2012/04/what-is-new-aesthetic.html
Bogost, I. (2009) What is Object-Oriented Ontology? A Definition For Ordinary Folk, accessed 20/05/2012, http://www.bogost.com/blog/what_is_objectoriented_ontolog.shtml
Bogost, I. (2009b) Object-Oriented P*, accessed 23/05/2012, http://www.bogost.com/blog/objectoriented_p.shtml
Bogost, I. (2011) Writing Book People Want To Read: Or How To Stake Vampire Publishing, accessed 23/05/2012, http://www.bogost.com/blog/writing_books_people_want_to_r.shtml
Bogost, I. (2012a) Alien Phenomenology: or What It’s Like To Be A Thing, Minnesota University Press.
Bogost, I. (2012b) The New Aesthetic Needs to Get Weirder, The Atlantic, accessed 18/04/2012, http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/04/the-new-aesthetic-needs-to-get-weirder/255838/
Bryant, L. (2011) The Democracy of Objects, Open Humanities Press.

Charlesworth, J. J. (2012) We are the droids we’re looking for: the New Aesthetic and its friendly critics, accessed 25/05/2012, http://blog.jjcharlesworth.com/2012/05/07/we-are-the-droids-were-looking-for-the-new-aesthetic-and-its-friendly-critics/

Harman, G. (2009a) Technology, objects and things in Heidegger, Cambridge Journal of Economicsaccessed 18/04/2012, http://cje.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2009/05/29/cje.bep021.full?ijkey=oxf1js0onhVC73f&keytype=ref
Harman, G. (2009b) what correlationism reminds me of, accessed 23/05/2012, http://doctorzamalek2.wordpress.com/2009/11/08/what-correlationism-reminds-me-of/

Heidegger, M. (1995) Basic Questions of Philosophy: Selected Problems of Logic, Indiana University Press.

Heidegger, M. (1999) Contributions to Philosophy (From Enowning), Indiana: Indiana University Press.

Morton, T. (2011) Here Comes Everything: The Promise of Object-Oriented Ontology, Qui Parle, accessed 25/05/2012, http://ucdavis.academia.edu/TimMorton/Papers/971122/Here_Comes_Everything_The_Promise_of_Object-Oriented_Ontology

What Is the "New Aesthetic"?

8 Bit Pixel Makeup (via Gizmodo

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).[1] 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’),[2] 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). 

Further,

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).

Nihilistic Pixels

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.

CV Dazzle Makeup

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.[3]

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.

Notes

[1] 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?”.

[2] Many thanks to Michael Dieter for the post-Kantian suggestion.

[3] 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.

Bibliography

Berry, D. M. (2011a) The Philosophy of Software: Code and Mediation in the Digital Age, London: Palgrave.

Berry, D. M. (2011b) The Gigantic, Stunlaw, http://stunlaw.blogspot.co.uk/2011/12/gigantic-inc.html

Berry, D. M. (2012a) Abduction Aesthetic: Computationality and the New Aesthetic, Stunlaw, accessed 18/04/2012, http://stunlaw.blogspot.co.uk/2012/04/abduction-aesthetic-computationality.html

Berry, D. M. (2012b) Computationality and the New Aesthetic, Imperica, accessed 18/04/2012. http://www.imperica.com/viewsreviews/david-m-berry-computationality-and-the-new-aesthetic

Berry, D. M. (2012c) Understanding Digital Humanities, London: Palgrave.

Bogost, I. (2008) The Phenomenology of Videogames, in Günzel, S., Liebe, M., and Mersch D., (eds.) Conference Proceedings of the Philosophy of Computer Games 2008, Potsdam: University Press, pp 22-43, accessed 18/04/2012, http://pub.ub.uni-potsdam.de/volltexte/2008/2454/

Bogost, I. (2012) The New Aesthetic Needs to Get Weirder, The Atlantic, accessed 18/04/2012, http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/04/the-new-aesthetic-needs-to-get-weirder/255838/

Bogost, I. and Montfort, N. (2009) Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System, MIT Press.

Borenstein, G. (2012) What’s it like to be a 21C Thing?, Creators Project, accessed 18/04/2012, http://thecreatorsproject.com/blog/in-response-to-bruce-sterlings-essay-on-the-new-aesthetic#4

Bridle, J. (2012a) The New Aesthetic, accessed 05/04/2012, http://new-aesthetic.tumblr.com/

Bryant, L., Srnicek, N., and Harman, G. (2011) The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism, Melbourne: Re:Press. 
Crumb (2012) Crumb: Curating digital art mailing list, April 2012, accessed 18/03/2012, http://www.crumbweb.org

Ellis, E. (2011) The New Aesthetic, accessed 05/04/2012, http://www.warrenellis.com/?p=12811

Exinfoam (2012) Hello, QR, accessed 18/04/2012, http://exinfoam.wordpress.com/2012/04/13/hello-qr/

Fernandez, P. (2012) The New Aesthetic: A Response, accessed 18/04/2012, http://plummerfernandez.tumblr.com/post/21026026010/new-aesthetic

Gold, M. K. (2012) Debates in the Digital Humanities, University of Minnesota Press.

Grusin, R. (2012) The “new aesthetic” is just the latest name for remediation, all dressed up with nowhere to go, accessed 18/04/2012, https://twitter.com/#!/rgrusin/status/192622844860047361

Heidegger, H. (1978) Being and Time, London: Wiley-Blackwell.

Jackson, R. (2012) The Banality of The New Aesthetic, Furtherfield, accessed 18/04/2012, http://www.furtherfield.org/features/banality-new-aesthetic

Jameson, F. (2006) Postmodernism or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, in Kellner, D. Durham, M. G. (eds.) Media and Cultural Studies Keyworks, London: Blackwell.

Kaganskiy, J. (2012) In Response To Bruce Sterling’s “Essay On The New Aesthetic”, Creators Project, accessed 07/04/2012, http://www.thecreatorsproject.com/blog/in-response-to-bruce-sterlings-essay-on-the-new-aesthetic

Kittler, F. (1997) Literature, Media, Information Systems. Amsterdam: OAP.

Kittler, F. (1999) Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. Stanford, CA: Stanford University
Press.

Manovich, L. (2001) The Language of New Media. London: MIT Press.

Manovich, L. (2008) Software takes Command, retrieved 03/05/2010 from http://lab.softwarestudies.com/2008/11/softbook.html

Manovich, L. and Douglas, J. (2009) Visualizing Temporal Patterns In Visual Media: Computer Graphics as a Research Method, retrieved 10/10/09 from http://softwarestudies.com/cultural_analytics/visualizing_temporal_patterns.pdf

Marino, M. C. (2006) Critical Code Studies, Electronic Book Review, accessed 16 Sept 2011, http://www.electronicbookreview.com/thread/electropoetics/codology

Meillassoux, Q (2009) After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency, London: Continuum.

Owens, T. (2012) The New Aesthetic and the Artifactual Digital Object, accessed 18/04/2012, http://www.trevorowens.org/2012/04/the-new-aesthetic-and-the-artifactual-digital-object/

Parikka, J. (2010) Insect Media: An Archaeology of Animals and Technology, University of Minnesota Press

Parikka, J. and Huhtamo, E. (2011) Media Archaeology: Approaches, Applications, and Implications, University of California Press

Shaviro, S. (2011) The Actual Volcano: Whitehead, Harman and the Problem of Relations, in Bryant, L., Srnicek, N., and Harman, G. (eds.) The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism, Melbourne: Re:Press.

Sloan, R. (2011) The New Aesthetic, accessed 05/04/2012, http://snarkmarket.com/2011/6913

Sterling, B. (2012) An Essay on the New Aesthetic , Wired, accessed 05/04/2012, http://www.wired.com/beyond_the_beyond/2012/04/an-essay-on-the-new-aesthetic/

Thomson, I. (2011) Heidegger’s Aesthetics, Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, accessed 05/04/2012, http://stanford.library.usyd.edu.au/archives/sum2011/entries/heidegger-aesthetics/

Twitter (2012) Search “newaesthetic”, Twitter, accessed 18/04/2012, self-updating, https://twitter.com/#!/search/newaesthetic

Wardrip-Fruin, N. (2009) Expressive Processing: Digital Fictions, Computer Games, and Software Studies, MIT Press.

The Commodity-Mechanism Form of Software/Code

This post is part of a paper I gave at Unlike Us conference, Amsterdam 2012. The recording of the lecture is available online


Software presents a translucent interface relative to the common ‘world’ and so enables engagement with a ‘world’, this we call its interface. It is tempting, when trying to understand software/code to provide analysis at the level of this surface level, however software also possesses an opaque machinery that mediates engagement that is not experienced directly nor through social mediations. Without an attentiveness to the layers of software beneath this surface interface we are in danger of ‘screen essentialism’.  In terms of this analytic approach, one of the key aspects is that the surface can remain relatively stable whilst the machinery layer(s) can undergo frenetic and disorienting amounts of change (Berry 2012). This frantic disorientation at the machinery layer is therefore insulated from the user, who is provided with a surface which can be familiar, skeuomorphic (from the Greek, skeuos – vessel or tool, morphe – shape), representational, metonymic, figurative or extremely simplistic and domestic. It is important to note that the surface/interface need not be visual, indeed it may be presented as an application programming interface (API) which hides the underlying machinery behind this relatively benign interface.

The software we use is part of a wider constellation of software ecologies made possible by a plethora of computational devices that facilitate the colonisation of code into the lifeworld. In other words, software enables access to certain forms of mediated engagement with the world, this is achieved via the translucent surface interface and enables a machinery to be engaged which computationally interoperates with the world. These engagements are enabled by processes we might call compactants (computational actants) which can be understood through a dual surface/machinery structure. Compactants are often constructed in such a way that they can be understood as having a dichotomous modality of data-collection/visualisation, each of which is a specific mode of operation. Again this may not necessarily be a visual component of the compactant, which may merely re-present data through computational analysis to a visual packager or visualisation device/software system. This modal setting may be accessible to the user, or it may be a hidden function accessible only to certain people/coder/other compactants, etc.

Compactants are designed to passive-aggressively record data.  With the notion of compactants I want to particularly draw attention to this passive-aggressive feature of computational agents that are collecting information. Both in terms of their passive quality – under the surface, relatively benign and silent – but also the fact that they are aggressive in their hoarding of data – monitoring behavioural signals, social signals, streams of affectivity and so forth.  The word compact also has useful overtones of having all the necessary components or functions neatly fitted into a small package, and compact as in conciseness in expression. The etymology from the Latin compact for closely put together, or joined together, also nearly expresses the sense of what web-bugs and related technologies are. The term compactants is also evocative in terms of the notion of ‘companion actants’ (see Harraway 2003).

Analytically, therefore, software can be said to have two faces:

Commodity: accessible via the interface/surface and providing or procuring a commodity/service/function. Provides a relative stability for the consumption of ends.

Mechanism: accessible via textual source code, which contains the mechanisms and functions ‘hidden’ in the software (means).  This can be thought of as the substructure for the overlay of commodities and consumption.

The materiality of software requires a form of reading/writing of these depths through attentiveness to codes affordances. By attending to the ontological dimension of software, that is it structure and construction, we gather an insight into the substructure and machinery of software. Software is used/enjoyed without the encumbrance or engagement with its context due to this commodity form.

One of the striking things about using this analytical model for thinking about software is that it draws attention to a source of stability in computational society. That is, the commodity layer, the interface, may stay relatively stable vis a vis the user, whilst underneath at the level of the machinery there can be rapid change in terms of both hardware and software. In a usual case, the user is unlikely to notice much difference in the usability of the device, however the interface’s constant allows for a de-freneticness or at least a looser coupling between rapid technical change and the user experience of technology. We should expect that when interfaces achieve a certain retinal quality, making them indistinguishable from other representational forms, such as high definition images or photography, then further developments will begin to be made in terms of the skeuomorphic/figurative/metonymic. Indeed, to some extent this is already starting to happen within user interface design with the move to ‘simple’ or ‘obvious’ design principles (see Beecher 2010).

Bibliography

Beecher, F. (2010) UI Guidelines for Skeuomorphic Multi-Touch Interfaces , accessed 29/03/2012, http://userexperience.evantageconsulting.com/2010/11/ui-guidelines-for-skeuomorphic-multi-touch-interfaces/

Berry, D. M. (2012) Thinking Software: Realtime Streams and Knowledge in the Digital Age, UnlikeUs 2012, accessed 29/03/2012, http://vimeo.com/39256099

Harraway, D. (2003) The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness, Prickly Paradigm Press.

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

Abduction Aesthetic: Computationality and the New Aesthetic

In a previous article on this blog I discussed abduction, thinking and patterns (Berry 2012a),  and consequently I have been struck by a provocative article written by Bruce Sterling about what he called the New Aesthetic (Sterling 2012). The links between this ‘New Aesthetic’ and questions over pattern recognition and the way in which computational models are imposed on the ‘real’ are very timely. 
The ‘New Aesthetic’ is an aesthetic that revels in seeing the grain of computation (Jones 2011), or perhaps better, seeing the limitations or digital artefacts of a kind of digital glitch, what we might call an ‘aesthetic of failure’. Indeed, 

the debate on the aesthetic of digital code has been predominantly focused, on the non-representational and non-functional performativity of coding and its infinite possible infractions (errors, glitches and noise), emphasising that it is precisely these infractions that give code its real aesthetic value… [or] the sensorial alterations or affects produced by technology on the human body-subject (Parisi and Portanova 2012).

More so this aesthetic is concerned with the act of representing the digital within the more commonly analogue life-world that we inhabit in everyday life. The ‘New Aesthetic’ was initially introduced at South By South West (SXSW) on March 12th 2012, at a panel organised by James Bridle.[1] It was called ‘The New Aesthetic: Seeing Like Digital Devices’ and was primarily concerned with ‘giv[ing] examples of these effects, products and artworks, and discuss the ways in which ways of [computer/robot] seeing are increasingly transforming ways of making and doing’ (SXSW 2012). A number of post panel write-ups have been made by the participants, including Bridle (2012b), Cope (2012), Davies (2012), McNeil (2012) and Terrett (2012). Bruce Sterling attended the presentation at SXSW, and subsequently discussed how struck he was by the New Aesthetic and how it went beyond a mere concern with computer/robot vision (Sterling 2012). 
Certainly enabling robot/computer algorithms to ‘see’ by imposing computational ‘pixels’ on reality is part of this New Aesthetic (see Catt 2012). However, there is also 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 – especially considering that we are moving into a high-definition world of retina displays and high-pixel density experience (for an example, see Huff 2012). Sterling explains that the new aesthetics:

concerns itself with “an eruption of the digital into the physical.” That eruption was inevitable. It’s been going on for a generation. It should be much better acculturated than it is. There are ways to make that stark, lava-covered ground artistically fertile and productive (Sterling 2012).

Using a flâneur-like approach, James Bridle collects objects, artworks, buildings, places and images in a growing blog-based accumulation of things that he presents as exemplars of this new aesthetic (a collection itself an interesting computational form) (Bridle 2011a, Bridle 2011b). He explains:

I started noticing things like this in the world. This is a cushion on sale in a furniture store that’s pixelated. This is a strange thing. This is a look, a style, a pattern that didn’t previously exist in the real world. It’s something that’s come out of digital. It’s come out of a digital way of seeing, that represents things in this form. The real world doesn’t, or at least didn’t, have a grain that looks like this. But you start to see it everywhere when you start looking for it. It’s very pervasive. It seems like a style, a thing, and we have to look at where that style came from, and what it means, possibly. Previously things that would have been gingham or lacy patterns and this kind of thing is suddenly pixelated. Where does that come from? What’s that all about? (Bridle 2011a).

CV Dazzle, Camouflage from Computer Vision (Harvey 2012)

His website, aptly titled ‘The New Aesthetic’, also hosts found objects from across the internet (and which he captures in everyday life) piled together into a quantitative heap of computational aesthetic objects (Bridle 2012a). Indeed Sterling (2012) attempts a definition:

The “New Aesthetic” is a native product of modern network culture. It’s from London, but it was born digital, on the Internet. The New Aesthetic is a “theory object” and a “shareable concept.”… The New Aesthetic is “collectively intelligent.” It’s diffuse, crowdsourcey, and made of many small pieces loosely joined. It is rhizomatic, as the people at Rhizome would likely tell you. It’s open-sourced, and triumph-of-amateurs. It’s like its logo, a bright cluster of balloons tied to some huge, dark and lethal weight (Sterling 2012).

Sterling rightly argues that this is a symptomology that Bridle (2011a, 2012a) is observing but something must be bring these forces together. Sterling again,

It was grand work to find and assemble this New Aesthetic wunderkammer, but a heap of eye-catching curiosities don’t constitute a compelling worldview. Look at all of them: Information visualization. Satellite views. Parametric architecture. Surveillance cameras. Digital image processing. Data-mashed video frames. Glitches and corruption artifacts. Voxelated 3D pixels in real-world geometries. Dazzle camou. Augments. Render ghosts. And, last and least, nostalgic retro 8bit graphics from the 1980s (Sterling 2012).

The question that arises both for Bridle and for Sterling is: what is going on here? What does this aesthetic signify and what is its critical location? Sterling correctly, in my mind, rejects the notion of an aesthetic of the machines, or of computer vision etc, what has been called sensor-venacular elsewhere, equally rejecting a kind of hauntology of the 1980s (Jones 2011), or sensor-aesthetic (Sloan 2011, see also Ellis 2011, Gyford 2011). I also think that although the notion of ‘computational value’, introduced by Bernhard Rieder, is interesting in terms of political economy, it doesn’t help us understand this aesthetic eruption (see Bridle 2011b). Nor does an explicit link between this new aesthetic and an object-oriented ontology necessarily help us understand this pattern aesthetic (Borenstein 2012, Kaganskiy 2012) although I agree with Battles (2012) and Reynolds (2012) that the new aesthetic poses a challenge for us to think about.

Untitled (2011) David Hockney

Instead, expanding on Sterling’s paper, and following on from my own work in this area, I want to argue that this new aesthetic is a form of abduction aesthetic linked to the emergence of computationality as an ontotheology (Berry 2011a, Berry 2011b).[2] Computationality is here understood as a specific historical epoch defined by a certain set of computational knowledges, practices, methods and categories. Abductive aesthetic (or pattern aesthetic) is linked by a notion of computational patterns and pattern recognition as a means of cultural expression (Berry 2012a). By this I mean that as computational ontologies and categories become increasingly dominant as instrumental values, they also become influential as economic, political, communicative and aesthetic concepts (see Berry 2011a; Manovich 2001, 2008; Manovich and Douglas 2009). Patterns, drawing on the ideas of Christopher Alexander, are:

a three-part rule, which expresses a relation between a certain context, a problem, and a solution. As an element in the world, each pattern is a relationship between a certain context, a certain system of forces which occurs repeatedly in that context, and a certain spatial configuration which allows these forces to resolve themselves. As an element of language, a pattern is an instruction, which shows how this spatial configuration can be used, over and over again, to resolve the given system of forces, wherever the context makes it relevant. The pattern is, in short, at the same time a thing, which happens in the world, and the rule which tells us how to create that thing, and when we must create it. It is both a process and a thing; both a description of a thing which is alive, and a description of the process which will generate that thing (Alexander 1979: 247).

Patterns are also deeply concerned with computer pattern recognition, repeated elements, codes, and structural elements that enable something to be recognised as a type of thing (see Harvey 2011 for a visualisation of facial pattern recognition, below). This is not just visual, of course, and patterns may be recognised in data sets, textual archives, data points, distributions, non-visual sensors, physical movement or gestures, haptic forces, etc. Indeed, this points to the importance of information visualisation as part of the abduction aesthetic in order to ‘visualise’ the patterns that are hidden in sets of data. This is also a link between new aesthetic and the digital humanities (see Berry 2012b, Gold 2012).

Computation, understood within the context of computationality, pervades our everyday life, it therefore becomes the limit of our possibilities for reason, experience and desire within this historical paradigm of knowledge, or episteme (see Berry 2012c). One can think of abductive aesthetic as a bounded aesthetic linked extricably with the computational and the foundation for developing a cognitive map (Jameson 2006: 516). The fact that abduction aesthetics are networked, sharable, modular, ‘digital’, and located both in the digital and analogue worlds is appropriate as they follow the colonisation of the lifeworld by the technics of computationality. We could look at David Hockney’s Fresh Flowers (Grant 2010) and the fact that he links the artwork he produces to the medial affordances of the computational device, in this case an iPad, stating ‘when using his iPhone or iPad to draw, the features of the devices tend to shape his choice of subject…The fact that it’s illuminated makes you choose luminous subjects’ (Freeman 2012). Parisi and Portanova further argue for an algorithmic aesthetic with their notion of ‘soft thought’:

the aesthetic of soft thought precisely implies that digital algorithms are autonomous, conceptual modes of thinking, a thinking that is always already a mode of feeling ordered in binary codes, and is not to be confused with sensing or perceiving. Numerical processing is always a feeling, a simultaneously physical and conceptual mode of feeling data, physical in the actual operations of the hardware-software machine, conceptual in the grasp of numbers as virtualities or potentials (Parisi and Portanova 2012).

The point I want to make is that the collections that Bridle (2012a) is making, are indeed symptomatic of an emerging aesthetic, and is somewhat haphazard and uncurated in as much as the objects collected are placed within a Tumblr blog that presents them to us as a stream of data – again significant in my reading of computationality (see Berry 2011a). It is also significant that the means of collecting these digital and pseudo-digital objects is through a computational frame, the collection made possible through new forms of computational curation tools, such as Tumblr and Pinterest  (2012).

Splinter Camouflage Scheme for Fighter Jet

The abductive aesthetic is therefore deeply influenced by and reliant on patterns and abductive reasoning more generally (see Berry 2012a). This I argue will be a common thread that links the lists of objects that seem to have nothing more in common than a difficult to reconcile and tenuous digitality, or perhaps a seeming retro towards older forms of digital rendering and reproduction. In actuality it is no surprise that we see a return of 8-bit retro – it could perhaps be described as the abductive aesthetic par excellence, inasmuch as it enables an instant recognition of, and indeed serves as an important representation for the digital, even as the digital becomes high-definition and less ‘digital’ by the day (see Jean 2010).

As computation, and by definition its carriers, code and software, increasingly withdraw into the background of our experience, it is probable that we will increasingly see the foregrounding of a representation of, and for, the digital/computational.[3] In some ways, 8-bit images are reassuring and still comprehensible as different from and standing in opposition to the everyday world people inhabit. In other ways, however, the glitches, retro 8-bit esque look that we see in pixelated works are actually distant from the capabilities of contemporary machines and their 8-bit blocky ontologies provide only limited guidance on the way in which software now organises and formats the our shared, and sharable, world (Berry 2011a). So ironically, just as digital technologies and software mediate our experience and engagement with the world, often invisibly, so the ‘digital’ and ‘software’ is itself mediated and made visible through the representational forms of pixelation and glitch.

Skeuomorphic calender in Mac OS X

As the abduction aesthetic becomes more prevalent it will be interesting to see the exemplars of this form emerge. Whilst today we tend to think of the 8-bit pixelation, satellite photos, CCTV images, and the like, it is probable that alternative, more computational forms may prevail. I think it likely that skeuomorphic images will become increasingly common and may be the historical exemplar of our digital present, as indeed might skeuomorphic representations of older 8-bit technologies (such as enabled by MAME and other emulators) (see MAME 2012). Conceivably this also might lead to a form of cognitive dissonance with people looking for pattern aesthetics everywhere, understood as a form of apophenia, that is, the experience of seeing meaningful patterns or connections in random or meaningless data (called a type 1 error in statistics). Perhaps even further, people will seek digital or abductive explanations for certain kinds of aesthetic, visual or even non-visual experiences which may not be digital or produced through computational means at all, a digital pareidolia.[4]

Further, following Charles Sanders Peirce notion of abduction (Berry 2012a), we might introduce the concept of musement to describe the mode of thinking relevant to the aesthetic enjoyment of the abductive. Peirce defined musement as ‘pure play’ which is strikingly receptive and leisurely (Salas 2009: 468).

It is “a lively exercise of one’s powers” and yet “has no rules, except this very law of liberty” (6.458). Though musement is leisurely in that it allows the muser to assume different standpoints, it also involves deliberate observation and meditation. “It begins passively enough with drinking in the impression of some nook in one of the three universes [a primary universe of sensations or raw experience; a secondary universe of reactions to sensory data; and a tertiary universe of representations or signs used to relate the primary and secondary universes]. But impression soon passes into attentive observation, observation into musing, musing into a lively give-and-take between self and self” (6.459). While in a sense passive and receptive, musement is also that in which “logical analysis can be put to it full efficiency” (6.461). We might say that, while “musing” one is both “active” and “contemplative”… (Salas 2009: 468).

It is striking the similarity between Peirce’s notion of musement and the Greek concept of theôria or contemplation, which according to Aristotle was the highest activity of leisure. Indeed, Peirce distinguishes musement from ‘reverie’ or ‘vacancy and dreaminess (Salas 2009: 290). This element of playfulness is extremely relevant to a discussion of the aesthetics of computationality, and indeed forms a large part of the new aesthetic that Bridle (2011) and Sterling (2012) describe. It is interesting to note that a properly distanced musement indeed seems possible towards the abduction aesthetic when mediated through the real-time streams made available through Tumblr, Pinterest, Twitter, and other digital asset/object streaming technologies.

Notes

[1] The original panel description read: ‘Slowly, but increasingly definitively, our technologies and our devices are learning to see, to hear, to place themselves in the world. Phones know their location by GPS. Financial algorithms read the news and feed that knowledge back into the market. Everything has a camera in it. We are becoming acquainted with new ways of seeing: the Gods-eye view of satellites, the Kinect’s inside-out sense of the living room, the elevated car-sight of Google Street View, the facial obsessions of CCTV….As a result, these new styles and senses recur in our art, our designs, and our products. The pixelation of low-resolution images, the rough yet distinct edges of 3D printing, the shifting layers of digital maps. In this session, the participants will give examples of these effects, products and artworks, and discuss the ways in which ways of seeing are increasingly transforming ways of making and doing’ (SXSW 2012).

[2] Where computationality is understood as a specific historical time period defined by a certain set of computational knowledges, practices, methods and categories. Computationality might then be understood as an ontotheology, which Heidegger argues creates a new ontological ‘epoch’ as a new historical constellation of intelligibility.With the notion of ontotheology, Heidegger is following Kant’s argument that intelligibility is a process of filtering and organising a complex overwhelming world by the use of ‘categories’, Kant’s ‘discursivity thesis’. Heidegger historicises Kant’s cognitive categories arguing that there is ‘succession of changing historical ontotheologies that make up the “core” of the metaphysical tradition. These ontotheologies establish “the truth concerning entities as such and as a whole”, in other words, they tell us both what and how entities are – establishing both their essence and their existence’ (Thomson 2009: 149–50). Metaphysics, grasped ontotheologically, ‘temporarily secures the intelligible order’ by understanding it ‘ontologically’, from the inside out, and ‘theologically’ from the outside in, which allows the formation of an epoch, a ‘historical constellation of intelligibility which is unified around its ontotheological understanding of the being of entities’ (Thomson 2009: 150).


[3] Here I would like to draw attention to two interesting areas of study that focus on code and software, namely Critical Code Studies and Software Studies: (1) Critical Code Studies: critical approaches to the study of computer source code. Marino argues: ‘that we no longer speak of the code as a text in metaphorical terms, but that we begin to analyze and explicate code as a text, as a sign system with its own rhetoric, as verbal communication that possesses significance in excess of its functional utility… In effect, [Marino proposes] that we can read and explicate code the way we might explicate a work of literature in a new field of inquiry’ (Marino 2006); and (2) Software Studies: critical approaches to the study of software (as compiled source code), particularly large-scale systems such as operating systems, applications, and games. Alternatively this also includes the use of software to study other things, like culture (see Manovich 2008), which Manovich calls Cultural Analytics (Williford 2011). It might also entail the study of the use of software historically (see Ensmenger 2010). One important aspect of this is to focus on computer/technical systems within society and culture – for example the Internet, the email system, mobile data, the HTTP protocol, etc.

[4]  Pareidolia involves seeing importance in vague and random phenomenon, for example a face in a random collection of dots on paper. By ‘digital pareidolia’ I am gesturing towards seeing digital causes for things that happen in everyday life. Indeed, under a regime of computationality in the future it might be considered stranger to believe that things might have non-digital causes. Thus apophenia would be the norm in a highly digital computational society, perhaps even a significant benefit to one’s life chances and well-being if finding patterns becomes increasingly lucrative. Here we might consider the growth of computational high-frequency trading and financial systems that are trained and programmed to identify patterns very quickly. 



Bibliography

Alexander, C. (1979) The Timeless Way of Building, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Battles, M. (2012) But it moves: the New Aesthetic & emergent virtual taste, Metalab, accessed 08/04/2012, http://metalab.harvard.edu/2012/04/but-it-moves-the-new-aesthetic-emergent-virtual-taste/

Berry, D. M. (2011a) The Philosophy of Software: Code and Mediation in the Digital Age, London: Palgrave.

Berry, D. M. (2011b) The World of Computationality: Flickering Objects and Streaming-beings, Stunlaw, accessed 05/04/2012, http://stunlaw.blogspot.co.uk/2011/11/world-of-computationality-flickering.html

Berry, D. M. (2012a) Computational Thinking: Some thoughts about Abduction, Stunlaw, 05/04/2012, http://stunlaw.blogspot.co.uk/2012/03/computational-thinking-some-thoughts.html

Berry, D. M. (2012b) Understanding Digital Humanities, London: Palgrave.

Berry, D. M. (2012c) The Commodity-Mechanism Form of Software/Code, Stunlaw, 05/04/2012, http://stunlaw.blogspot.co.uk/2012/03/commoditymechanism-form-of-softwarecode.html

Borenstein, G. (2012) What Its Like To Be a 21C Thing?, Creators Project, accessed 07/04/2012, http://www.thecreatorsproject.com/blog/in-response-to-bruce-sterlings-essay-on-the-new-aesthetic#4

Bridle, J. (2011a) Waving at the Machines, Web Directions, accessed 05/04/2012, http://www.webdirections.org/resources/james-bridle-waving-at-the-machines/

Bridle, J. (2011b) Regarding the library with envious eyes, Booktwo.org, accessed 05/04/2012, http://booktwo.org/notebook/books-computational-value/

Bridle, J. (2012a) The New Aesthetic, accessed 05/04/2012, http://new-aesthetic.tumblr.com/

Bridle, J. (2012b) #sxaesthetic, accessed 06/04/2012, http://booktwo.org/notebook/sxaesthetic/

Catt, R. D. (2012) Why the New Aesthetic isn’t about 8bit retro, the Robot Readable World, computer vision and pirates, accessed 08/04/2012, http://revdancatt.com/2012/04/07/why-the-new-aesthetic-isnt-about-8bit-retro-the-robot-readable-world-computer-vision-and-pirates/

Cope, A. S. (2012) Study for Roger, 2012, accessed 07/04/2012, http://www.aaronland.info/weblog/2012/03/13/godhelpus/#sxaesthetic

Davies, R. (2012) SXSW, the new aesthetic and writing, accessed 07/04/2012, http://russelldavies.typepad.com/planning/2012/03/sxsw-the-new-aesthetic-and-writing.html

Ellis, E. (2011) The New Aesthetic, accessed 05/04/2012, http://www.warrenellis.com/?p=12811

Ensmenger, N. L. (2010) Computer Boys Take Over, Cambridge: MIT Press.

Freeman, H. (2012) Open thread: iPad and iPhone art, The Guardian, accessed 05/04/2012, http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2012/jan/17/art-hockney

Gold, M. K. (2012) Debates in the Digital Humanities, University of Minnesota Press.

Grant, C. (2010) David Hockney’s instant iPad art, BBC, accessed 05/04/2012, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-11666162

Gyford, P. (2011) One of today’s futures, accessed 05/04/2012, http://www.gyford.com/phil/writing/2011/05/26/new-aesthetic.php

Harvey, A. (2011) OpenCV Face Detection: Visualized, accessed 08/04/2012, http://vimeo.com/12774628

Harvey, A. (2012) CV Dazzle, Camouflage from Computer Vision, accessed 05/04/2012, http://cvdazzle.com/

Huff, J. (2012) Beyond the Surface: 15 Years of Desktop Aesthetics, Rhizome, accessed 05/04/2012, http://rhizome.org/editorial/2012/mar/14/beyond-surface-15-years-desktop-aesthetics/

Jameson, F. (2006) Postmodernism or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, in Kellner, D. Durham, M. G. (eds.) Media and Cultural Studies Keyworks, London: Blackwell.

Jean, P. (2010) Pixels, accessed 06/04/2012, http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xcv6dv_pixels-by-patrick-jean_creation

Jones, M. (2011) Sensor-Venacular, Berg, access 05/04/2012, http://berglondon.com/blog/2011/05/13/sensor-vernacular/

Kaganskiy, J. (2012) In Response To Bruce Sterling’s “Essay On The New Aesthetic”, Creators Project, accessed 07/04/2012, http://www.thecreatorsproject.com/blog/in-response-to-bruce-sterlings-essay-on-the-new-aesthetic

MAME (2012) Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator, http://mamedev.org/

Manovich, L. (2001) The Language of New Media. London: MIT Press.

Manovich, L. (2008) Software takes Command, retrieved 03/05/2010 from http://lab.softwarestudies.com/2008/11/softbook.html

Manovich, L. and Douglas, J. (2009) Visualizing Temporal Patterns In Visual Media: Computer Graphics as a Research Method, retrieved 10/10/09 from http://softwarestudies.com/cultural_analytics/visualizing_temporal_patterns.pdf

Marino, M. C. (2006) Critical Code Studies, Electronic Book Review, accessed 16 Sept 2011, http://www.electronicbookreview.com/thread/electropoetics/codology

McNeil, J. (2012) The New Aesthetic: Seeing Like Digital Devices at SXSW 2012, accessed 07/04/2012, http://joannemcneil.com/index.php?/talks-and-such/new-aesthetic-at-sxsw-2012/

Parisi, L. and Portanova, J. (2012) Soft thought (in architecture and choreography), Computational Culture, accessed 08/04/2012, http://computationalculture.net/article/soft-thought

Pinterest (2012) Pinterest, accessed 05/04/2012, http://pinterest.com/

Reynolds, S. (2012) Bruce Sterling with a super-thought-provoking essay on what some are starting to call the New Aesthetic – “an eruption of the digital into the physical”, accessed 08/04/2012, http://retromaniabysimonreynolds.blogspot.co.uk/2012/04/bruce-sterling-with-essay-on-what-some.html

Salas, E. (2009) Abduction and the Origin of “Musement”: Peirce’s “Neglected Argument” for the Reality of God, International Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 49, Number 4, Issue 196.

Sloan, R. (2011) The New Aesthetic, accessed 05/04/2012, http://snarkmarket.com/2011/6913

Sterling, B. (2012) An Essay on the New Aesthetic , Wired, accessed 05/04/2012, http://www.wired.com/beyond_the_beyond/2012/04/an-essay-on-the-new-aesthetic/
SXSW (2012) The New Aesthetic: Seeing Like Digital Devices, SXSW, accessed 07/04/2012, http://schedule.sxsw.com/2012/events/event_IAP11102

Terrett, B. (2012) SXSW, the new aesthetic and commercial visual culture, accessed 07/04/2012, http://noisydecentgraphics.typepad.com/design/2012/03/sxsw-the-new-aesthetic-and-commercial-visual-culture.html

Thomson, I. (2009) ‘Understanding Technology Ontotheologically, or: The
Danger and the Promise of Heidegger, an American Perspective, In Jan-Kyrre Berg Olsen, Evan Selinger, and Søren Riis (eds), New Waves in the Philosophy of Technology. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 146–66.

Williford, J. (2011) Graphing Culture, Humanities Magazine, March/April 2011, accessed 16 Sept 2011, http://www.neh.gov/news/humanities/2011-03/Graphing.html

The Commodity-Mechanism Form of Software/Code

This post is part of a paper I gave at Unlike Us conference, Amsterdam 2012. The recording of the lecture is available online

Software presents a translucent surface relative to the common ‘world’ and so enables engagement with a ‘world’, this we often call its interface (although increasingly the surface is replacing the interface). It is tempting, when trying to understand software/code to provide analysis at the level of this surface level, however software also possesses an opaque machinery that mediates engagement that is not experienced directly nor through social mediations. Without an attentiveness to the layers of software beneath this surface we are in danger of ‘screen essentialism’.  In terms of this analytic approach, one of the key aspects is that the surface can remain relatively stable whilst the machinery layer(s) can undergo frenetic and disorienting amounts of change (Berry 2012). This frantic disorientation at the machinery layer is therefore insulated from the user, who is provided with a surface which can be familiar, skeuomorphic (from the Greek, skeuos – vessel or tool, morphe – shape), representational, metonymic, figurative or extremely simplistic and domestic. It is important to note that the surface need not be visual, indeed it may be presented as an application programming interface (API) which hides the underlying machinery behind this relatively benign interface.

The software we use is part of a wider constellation of software ecologies made possible by a plethora of computational devices that facilitate the colonisation of code into the lifeworld. In other words, software enables access to certain forms of mediated engagement with the world, this is achieved via the translucent surface interface and enables a machinery to be engaged which computationally interoperates with the world. These engagements are enabled by processes we might call compactants (computational actants) which can be understood through a dual surface/machinery structure. Compactants are often constructed in such a way that they can be understood as having a dichotomous modality of data-collection/visualisation, each of which is a specific mode of operation. Again this may not necessarily be a visual component of the compactant, which may merely re-present data through computational analysis to a visual packager or visualisation device/software system. This modal setting may be accessible to the user, or it may be a hidden function accessible only to certain people/coder/other compactants, etc.

Compactants are designed to passive-aggressively record data.  With the notion of compactants I want to particularly draw attention to this passive-aggressive feature of computational agents that are collecting information. Both in terms of their passive quality – under the surface, relatively benign and silent – but also the fact that they are aggressive in their hoarding of data – monitoring behavioural signals, social signals, streams of affectivity and so forth.  The word compact also has useful overtones of having all the necessary components or functions neatly fitted into a small package, and compact as in conciseness in expression. The etymology from the Latin compact for closely put together, or joined together, also nearly expresses the sense of what web-bugs and related technologies are. The term compactants is also evocative in terms of the notion of ‘companion actants’ (see Harraway 2003).

Analytically, therefore, software can be said to have two faces:

Commodity: accessible via the interface or surface and providing or procuring a commodity/service/function. Provides a relative stability for the consumption of ends.

Mechanism: accessible via textual source code, which contains the mechanisms and functions ‘hidden’ in the software (means).  This can be thought of as the substructure for the overlay of commodities and consumption. 
The materiality of software requires a form of reading/writing of these depths through attentiveness to codes affordances. By attending to the ontological dimension of software, that is it structure and construction, we gather an insight into the substructure and machinery of software. Software is used/enjoyed without the encumbrance or engagement with its context due to this commodity form. 
One of the striking things about using this analytical model for thinking about software is that it draws attention to a source of stability in computational society. That is, the commodity layer, the interface, may stay relatively stable vis a vis the user, whilst underneath at the level of the machinery there can be rapid change in terms of both hardware and software. In a usual case, the user is unlikely to notice much difference in the usability of the device, however the interface’s constant allows for a de-freneticness or at least a looser coupling between rapid technical change and the user experience of technology. We should expect that when interfaces achieve a certain retinal quality, making them indistinguishable from other representational forms, such as high definition images or photography, then further developments will begin to be made in terms of the skeuomorphic/figurative/metonymic. Indeed, to some extent this is already starting to happen within user interface design with the move to ‘simple’ or ‘obvious’ design principles (see Beecher 2010) and the greater use of a surface as a means to access a device. 
Bibliography
Beecher, F. (2010) UI Guidelines for Skeuomorphic Multi-Touch Interfaces , accessed 29/03/2012, http://userexperience.evantageconsulting.com/2010/11/ui-guidelines-for-skeuomorphic-multi-touch-interfaces/

Berry, D. M. (2012) Thinking Software: Realtime Streams and Knowledge in the Digital Age, UnlikeUs 2012, accessed 29/03/2012, http://vimeo.com/39256099

Harraway, D. (2003) The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness, Prickly Paradigm Press.

The World of Computationality: Flickering Objects and Streaming-beings

Accepting that the Worldhood of the World allows us to encounter anything at all (Heidegger 1977). What would be the structural features of a world of computationality understood as an alternative mode of revealing in contrast to the challenging-forth of technicity? For Heidegger electricity was the paradigmatic metaphor for technicity, both in terms of its generation through the challenging-forth of nature, through coal, oil, hydropower, etc. and in terms of the switching systems that were required to route both production, distribution and consumption of the electricity itself. He saw this switiching capacity as a process of ordering by ‘ordering beings’ where:

Everywhere everything is ordered to standby, to be immediately on hand, indeed, to stand there just so that it may be on call for a further ordering (Heidegger 1977).

Here I want to suggest that technicity isn’t sufficient to describe the contemporary mode of revealing through computationality. Indeed, challenging forth is better understood, as indeed Heidegger concedes, as a modern technology, and indeed I would argue not necessarily applicable to the kinds of postmodern technologies, such as the computer, that increasingly permeate our everyday life. In computationality, then, the paradigmatic metaphor I want to use is real-time streaming technologies and the data flows, processual stream-based engines and media interfaces that embody them. This is to stop thinking about the digital as something static and object-like and instead consider its ‘trajectories’. Here I am thinking about the way in which scripts function to create loops and branching, albeit highly complex forms, and create a stable ‘representation’, which we often think of as an digital ‘object’. Under the screen surface, however, there is a constant stream of processing, a movement and trajectory, a series of lines that are being followed and computed. Something like Twitter suggests the kind of real-time experiential technology that I am thinking about and the difficulty of studying something unfolding in this manner, let alone archiving or researching, without an eye on its processual nature encourages serious category errors.[1] The aim of this article is to begin to develop some of the ideas outlined in The Philosophy of Software through a phenomenology of computation (Berry 2011). In the following table, for example, I want to explore how we might think about this different mode of existence of a highly softwarized streaming ontology.

Technicity

(modern technology)

Computationality (postmodern technology)

Mode of Revealing

Challenging-forth (Gestell)


Streaming-forth

Paradigmatic Equipment

Technical devices, machines.

Computational devices, computers, processors.

Goals (projects)

1. Unlocking, transforming, storing, distributing, and switching about Standing Reserve (Bestand).

2. Efficiency.

1. Trajectories,  Processing information, Algorithmic transformation (aggregation, reduction, calculation), as data reserve.

2. Computability.

Identities (roles)

Ordering-beings

Streaming-beings

Paradigmatic Epistemology

Engineer, Time-motion studies, Methods-Time Measurement (MTM), instrumental rationality


Design, Information theory, graph theory,  data visualisation, communicative rationality

Within Gestell every subject/object is a story of challenging-forth. This is related to a structural map, or ground-plan, which describes a priori what the essences of particular beings are, however this is not innate, rather drawn from the grounding of intelligibility. As Heidegger explains:

As a destining, it banishes man into that kind of revealing that is an ordering. Where this ordering holds sway, it drives out every other possibility of revealing (Heidegger 1977).

Thus challenging-forth turns everything into resources, creating a world of objects and equipment on standby ready to be used in larger aggregates. For Heidegger there is a totalizing character of challenging-forth which forces it to attempt to apply the principle of efficiency to other marginal practices, and hence with it the danger of becoming the last possible mode of revealing.

The coming to presence of technology threatens revealing, threatens it within the possibility that all revealing will be consumed in ordering and that everything will present itself only in the unconcealedness of standing reserve (Heidegger 1977).

In contrast, I want to suggest that computationality is distinct from challenging-forth as technicity, inasmuch as it is a streaming-forth. One aspect of this is that streaming-forth generates second-order information and data from the world which is itself seen increasingly as flow. This collected information is then subject to further processing and algorithmic transformation, feedback thus becomes part of the ecology of computationality. Additionally, computational devices not only withdraw – indeed mechanical devices such as car engines clearly also withdraw – rather that computational devices both withdraw and are constantly pressing to be present-at-hand in alternation. They are in a curious middle state, this I call ‘unready-to-hand’ drawing on Heidegger’s notion of conspicuousness. Breakdowns, such as these, serve an extremely important cognitive function revealing to us the nature of our practices and equipment by bringing them ‘present-at-hand’ to our attention. However, the present-at-hand in computationality is of extremely limited duration, but also repeated in random ways, we could think of this as a stream of unreadiness-to-hand, specific to this mode of revealing. It is only when a breakdown occurs that we become aware of the fact that ‘things’ in our world exist not as the result of individual acts of cognition but through out active participation in a domain of discourse and mutual concern. We can think of this specific computational breakdown in two different ways:

  1. Something intrinsic to the computational means that computational devices (and entities that contain computational devices) are constantly moving in and out of this unready-to-hand state.
  2. Perhaps due to the loose coupling between interface and underlying code, this causes the pseudo-state of unreadyness-to-hand.

Anyway, it is clear from the history of computing that computers do not, nor have ever, been able to run themselves. They are constantly suffering from breakdowns, bugs, errors and crashes. Well-engineered physical machines do not suffer this constant breakdown. You could think of it as an oscillation, perhaps due to the underlying fragility of the nature of code, that means it is always on the constant verge of breakdown (again car engines do not act like this, once they are working they are working, generally speaking). Software and code is thus always calling to us from a position of unreadiness-to-hand. Software programmers have a lovely term for what I am getting at when they say that code throws an exception, which causes the machine to pause and wait for further instruction or execute an alternative method, or if no such instruction is available or forthcoming, it is said that code is unable to catch the exception and it crashes in someway (sometimes gracefully and at other times catastrophically).

Therefore it is not that computational equipment is different from equipment in other modes of revealing. Nor that there are special forms of computational equipment that have a ‘third mode’ or somehow stand middle between presence and absence. Rather, computational devices appear to have the rather novel feature/bug of oscillating rapidly between Vorhandenheit/Zuhandenheit. Or perhaps better, constantly becoming ready-to-hand/unready-to-hand in quick alternation. And by quick this can be happening in microseconds, milliseconds, or seconds, repeatedly in quick succession. This aspect of breakdown has been acknowledged as an issue within human-computer design and is seen as one of pressing concern to be ‘fixed’ or made invisible to the computational device user (Winograd and Flores 1987). Although in previous accounts attention has not been paid to the rapidity of the oscillations that I am drawing attention to here.

Hence within computationality absence and presence are being experienced in this very specific and very curious way enabled by computational devices. This quantitative micro/milli/second oscillations between modes translate into an odd mediated pseudo-mode which is, perhaps, qualitatively experienced as ‘uncanny’ and which might analytically be referred to as ‘radically unready-to-hand’ or ‘flickering objects’.[2] This is part of the specificity of the phenomenological experience that I am gesturing towards in computationality as a mode of revealing in contrast to technicity.

We used to think that this feature/bug of computational systems was due to the immaturity of the disciplines and methods, but after 40 years of writing code/software we still suffer from the same problems (indeed called the software crisis in the 1960s). Code is now bigger than a single human being can understand. Thus, in a running system, and in escaping our comprehension, it inevitably has aporia and liminal areas that mean we cannot truly control or even understand its operation.

We might expect that the kinds of things that show up as equipment, goals, and identities would be specific to computationality. Firstly, the equipment would be more autonomous of human control and have delegated agency within its software/code structures. This might mean that in a similar way to the principle of physis which governed the Greek world, things might ‘whoosh’ up unexpectedly in a manner which was a bursting bringing-forth (Dreyfus 2004). Of course, in this sense they are computationally bringing themselves forth with hidden potential, but the surface effect is interestingly comparable. These new kinds of enchanted objects would both bring to present-at-hand themselves, but also bring forth other objects. This would have the interesting effect of causing the user to think about the object creating this kind of ‘flickering object’, which passed between readiness-to-hand and present-at-hand. Secondly, the kinds of goals and projects that people have would be expressed within a computational structure, perhaps real-time streams that are procedural, algorithmic, modular, and quantitatively expressed. Thirdly, the identities or roles that people would have would enable them to take a stand on themselves that would be computational. Self-tracking, life-hacking type monitoring might therefore be turned into a continuous self-reflexive lifestream.

What is the style of the computational world?

It is deeply algorithmic in nature, surface driven, haptic, and information-centric. The use of conversational interfaces, such as Apple Siri,  is a useful harbinger of this computational future. Here, the user must be disciplined not to be conversational, but rather to be computationally conversational. Many millions of dollars of research money have been spent in an attempt to get computers to understand users’ conversational language, this has mostly been a failure. However, it is clear that with a certain limited grammatical and syntactical model of the world, combined with a certain amount of ‘personality’ the conversational interface can present a good enough working interface. This is good enough in as much as it can capture a limited conversational plane, but also teach the user how to talk to these enchanted objects in a particular style. Where here ‘style’ is taken to refer to the set of practices considered skilful within a particular mode of revealing.

This style is imperative, based around particular notions of quasi-subjects and quasi-objects, not in a ‘real’ everyday sense, but rather as entities that have various kinds of relational and contextual properties. For example, a particular contact in an address book has a series of properties by virtue of being in the address book, namely they become tagged as quasi-subjective having mobility and locative properties. Also they perform within a web of relations between objects and other quasi-subjects, for example having relationships (e.g. wife, spouse, child, daughter) with other quasi-subjects, location (e.g. home, work), and a face (e.g. through photo recognition). One might say that quasi-subjects and quasi-objects are formed within relational networks that are now modelled in graph theory and performed computationally. Thus the modernist subject of technicity becomes a postmodernist quasi-subject of computationality. A mode of revealing as a set of real-time computational data points producing this computational quasi-subject: the streaming-being.

Notes

[1] The archiving of software and code and digital media more generally is currently being actively engaged with in fields such as software studies, critical code studies, digital humanities and new media. There is often a temptation to think of the software as a discrete ‘object’ or package, forgetting that software and code are extremely networked and cannot function when taken away from this software ecology. Here, I am thinking of the platform that supports the software/code, such as the particular hardware, software, operating system, network connections, etc. It is certainly clear that currently emulated environments leave a lot to be desired when interacting with previous software and code. Unlike books which are relatively self-contained objects (Foucault notwithstanding) software/code is not readable in the same manner. Merely storing the software, and here I am thinking particularly about the executable binary, will not be enough to access, read, execute and explore the package. But neither is storing the source-code, which requires particular compilers, platforms and processes to reanimate it. In some instances one can imagine that the entire totality of technical society would need to be stored to adequately reanimate software/code – for example highly networked software, like zombie botnets, cascading database systems, networked gaming systems, massively parallel virtual worlds, etc. which runs through and across the internet might be an example of this. Perhaps in the future we will have to be content with accepting that the only way to archive some software systems will be to leave them running in a domesticated virtual scene captured temporally and looped in eternity. The longer the loop of code/ecology, the better the ability for future historians to explore and understand their use and meaning.

[2]  I have also referred to these previously as ‘fractured objects’.

Bibliography

Berry, D. M. (2011) The Philosophy of Software: Code and Mediation in the Digital Age, London: Palgrave.

Dreyfus, H. (2004) Being and Power: Heidegger and Foucault, accessed 29/10/11, http://socrates.berkeley.edu/~hdreyfus/html/paper_being.html

Heidegger, M. (1977) The Question Concerning Technology and other Essays, London: Harper & Row.

Winograd, T. and Flores, F. (1987) Understanding Computers and Cognition: A New Foundation for Design, London: Addison Wesley.

Advertisements