Category Archives: digital humanities

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.

 

 

 

Glitch Ontology

The digital (or computational) presents us with a number of theoretical and empirical challenges which we can understand within this commonly used set of binaries:

  • Linearity vs Hypertextuality
  • Narrative vs Database
  • Permanent vs Ephemeral
  • Bound vs Unbound
  • Individual vs Social
  • Deep vs Shallow
  • Focused vs Distracted
  • Close Read vs Distant Read
  • Fixed vs Processual
  • Digital (virtual) vs Real (physical)

Understanding the interaction between the digital and physical is part of the heuristic value that these binaries bring to the research activity. However, in relation to the interplay between the digital and the cultural, examples, such as Marquese Scott’s Glitch inspired Dubstep dancing (below), raise important questions about how these binaries interact and are represented in culture more generally (e.g. as notions of The New Aesthetic).

Glitch inspired Dubstep Dancing (Dancer: Marquese Scott)

Here, I am not interested in critiquing the use of binaries per se (but which of course remains pertinent – and modulations might be a better way to think of digital irruptions), rather I think they are interesting for the indicative light they cast on drawing analytical distinctions between categories and collections related to the digital itself. We can see them as lightweight theories, and as Moretti (2007) argues:

Theories are nets, and we should evaluate them, not as ends in themselves, but for how they concretely change the way we work: for how they allow us to enlarge the… field, and re-design it in a better way, replacing the old, useless distinctions… with new temporal, special, and morphological distinctions (Moretti 2007: 91, original emphasis).

These binaries can be useful means of thinking through many of the positions and debates that take place within both theoretical and empirical work on mapping the digital.

  1. Linear versus Hypertextuality: The notion of a linear text, usually fixed within a paper form, is one that has been taken for granted within the humanities. Computational systems, however, have challenged this model of reading because of the ease by which linked data can be incorporated into digital text. This has meant that experimentation with textual form and the way in which a reader might negotiate a text can be explored. Of course, the primary model for hypertextual systems is today strongly associated with the worldwide web and HTML, although other systems have been developed.
  2. Narrative versus Database: The importance of narrative as an epistemological frame for understanding has been hugely important in the humanities. Whether as a starting point for beginning an analysis, or through attempts to undermine of problematize narratives within texts, humanities scholars have usually sought to use narrative as an explanatory means of exploring both the literary and history. Computer technology, however, has offered scholars an alternative way of understanding how knowledge might be structured through the notion of the database. This approach personified in the work of Lev Manovich (2001) has been argued to represent an important aspect to digital media, and more importantly the remediation of old media forms in digital systems.
  3. Permanent versus Ephemeral: One of the hallmarks of much ‘traditional’ or ‘basic’ humanities scholarship has been concerned with objects and artifacts that have been relatively stable in relation to digital works. This especially in disciplines that have internalized the medium specificity of a form, for example the book in English Literature, which shifts attention to the content of the medium. In contrast, digital works are notoriously ephemeral in their form, both in the materiality of the substrates (e.g. computer memory chips, magnetic tape/disks, plastic disks, etc.) but also in the plasticity of the form.  This also bears upon the lack of an original from which derivative copies are made, indeed it could be argued that in the digital world there is only the copy (although recent moves in Cloud computing and digital rights management are partial attempts to re-institute the original through technical means).
  4. Bound versus Unbound: A notable feature of digital artifacts is that they tend to be unbound in character. Unlike books, which have clear boundary points marked by the cardboard that makes up the covers, digital objects boundaries are drawn by the file format in which they are encoded. This makes it an extremely permeable border, and one that is made of the same digital code that marks the content. Additionally, digital objects are easily networked and aggregated, processed and transcoded into other forms further problematizing a boundary point.  In terms of reading practices, it can be seen that the permeability of boundaries can radically change the reading experience.
  5. Individual versus Social: traditional humanities has focused strongly on approaches to texts that is broadly individualistic inasmuch as the reader is understood to undertake certain bodily practices (e.g. sitting in a chair, book on knees, concentration on the linear flow of text). Digital technologies, particularly when networked, open these practices up to a much more social experience of reading, with e-readers like the Amazon Kindle encouraging the sharing of highlighted passages, and Tumblr-type blogs and Twitter enabling discussion around and within the digital text.
  6. Deep versus Shallow: Deep reading is the presumed mode of understanding that requires time and attention to develop a hermeneutic reading of a text, this form requires humanistic reading skills to be carefully learned and applied. In contrast a shallow mode is a skimming or surface reading of a text, more akin to gathering a general overview or précis of the text.
  7. Focused versus Distracted: Relatedly, the notion of focused reading is also implicitly understood as an important aspect of humanities scholarship. This is the focus on a particular text, set of texts or canon, and the space and time to give full attention to them. By contrast, in a world of real-time information and multiple windows on computer screens, reading practices are increasingly distracted, partial and fragmented (hyperattention).
  8. Close Reading versus Distant Reading: Distant reading is the application of technologies to enable a great number of texts to be incorporated into an analysis through the ability of computers to process large quantities of text relatively quickly. Moretti (2007) has argued that this approach allows us to see social and cultural forces at work through collective cultural systems.
  9. Fixed versus Processual: The digital medium facilitates new ways of presenting media that are highly computational, this raises new challenges for scholarship into new media and the methods for approaching these mediums. It also raises questions for older humanities that are increasingly accessing their research object through the mediation of processural computational systems, and more particularly through software and computer code.
  10. Real (physical) versus Digital (virtual): This is a common dichotomy that draws some form of dividing line between the so-called real and the so-called digital.

The New Aesthetic ‘pixel’ fashion

I am outlining these binaries because I think they are useful for helping us to draw the contours of what I call elsewhere ‘computationality’, and for its relationship to the New Aesthetic. In order to move beyond a ‘technological sublime’, we should begin the theoretical and empirical projects through the development of ‘cognitive maps’ (Jameson 1990). Additionally, as the digital increasingly structures the contemporary world, curiously, it also withdraws, and becomes harder and harder for us to focus on as it is embedded, hidden, off-shored or merely forgotten about. Part of the challenge is to bring the digital (code/software) back into visibility for research and critique.

The New Aesthetic is a means for showing how the digital surfaces in a number of different places and contexts.  It is not purely digital production or output, it can also be the concepts and frameworks of digital that are represented (e.g. Voxels). Although New Aesthetic has tended to highlight 8-bit visuals and ‘sensor-vernacular’ or ‘seeing like a machine’ (e.g. Bridle/Sterling) I believe there is more to be explored in terms of ‘computationality’. When identified as such the ‘New Aesthetic’ is a useful concept, in relation to being able to think through and about the visual representation of computationality. Or better, to re-present the computational more generally and its relationship to a particular way-of-being in the world and its mediation through technical media (here specifically concerned with computational media).

Preen Spring/Summer 2012 | Source: Style.com

Previously I argued that this New Aesthetic is a form of ‘abduction aesthetic’ linked to the emergence of computationality as an ontotheology. 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. I argue that we should think about software/code through a notion of computationality as an ontotheology. Computationality (as an ontotheology) creates a new ontological ‘epoch’ as a new historical constellation of intelligibility. In other words, code/software is the paradigmatic case of computationality, and presents us with a research object which is located at all major junctures of modern society and is therefore unique in enabling us to understand the present situation – as a collection, network, or assemblage of ‘coded objects’ or ‘code objects’.

Computationality is distinct from the ‘challenging-forth’ of technicity as Heidegger described it – in contrast computationality has a mode of revealing that is a ‘streaming-forth’. One aspect of this is that streaming-forth generates second-order information and data to maintain a world which is itself seen and understood as flow but drawn from a universe which is increasingly understood as object-oriented and discrete. Collected information is processed, feedback is part of the ecology of computationality. Computational devices not only withdraw – indeed mechanical devices such as car engines clearly also withdraw – computational devices both withdraw and are constantly pressing to be present-at-hand in alternation. This I call a form of glitch 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 (Cloudscape).

2. Computability.

Identities (roles)

Ordering-beings

Streaming-beings

Paradigmatic Epistemology

Engineer: Engineering is exploiting basic mechanical principles to develop useful tools and objects. For example using: Time-motion studies, Methods-Time Measurement (MTM), instrumental rationality.

Design: Design is the construction of an object or a system but not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works and the experience it generates. For example using: Information theory, graph theory,  data visualisation, communicative rationality, real-time streams.

Table 1: Technicity vs Computationality

Computational devices appear to oscillate rapidly between Vorhandenheit/Zuhandenheit (present-at-hand/ready-to-hand) – a glitch ontology. 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).

The oscillation creates the ‘glitch’ that is a specific feature of computation as opposed to other technical forms (Berry 2011). This is the glitch that creates the conspicuousness that breaks the everyday experience of things, and more importantly breaks the flow of things being comfortably at hand. This is a form that Heidegger called Unreadyness-to-hand (Unzuhandenheit). Heidegger defines three forms of unreadyness-to-hand: Obtrusiveness (Aufdringlichkeit), Obstinacy (Aufsässigkeit), and Conspicuousness (Auffälligkeit), where the first two are non-functioning equipment and the latter is equipment that is not functioning at its best (see Heidegger 1978, fn 1). In other words, if equipment breaks you have to think about it.

It is important to note that conspicuousness is not completely broken-down equipment. Conspicuousness, then, ‘presents the available equipment as in a certain unavailableness’ (Heidegger 1978: 102–3), so that as Dreyfus (2001: 71) explains, we are momentarily startled, and then shift to a new way of coping, but which, if help is given quickly or the situation is resolved, then ‘transparent circumspective behaviour can be so quickly and easily restored that no new stance on the part of Dasein is required’ (Dreyfus 2001: 72). As Heidegger puts it, it requires ‘a more precise kind of circumspection, such as “inspecting”, checking up on what has been attained, [etc.]’ (Dreyfus 2001: 70).

In other words computation, due to its glitch ontology, continually forces a contextual slowing-down at the level of the mode of being of the user, thus the continuity of flow or practice is interrupted by minute pauses and breaks (these may beyond conscious perception, as such). This is not to say that analogue technologies do not break down, the difference is the conspicuousness of digital technologies in their everyday working, in contrast to the obstinacy or obtrusiveness of analogue technologies, which tend to work or not. I am also drawing attention to the discrete granularity of the conspicuousness of digital technologies, which can be measured technically as seconds, milliseconds, or even microseconds. This glitch ontology raises interesting questions in relation to basic questions about our experiences of computational systems.

My interest in the specificity of the New Aesthetic is because of its implicit recognition of the extent to which digital media has permeated our everyday lives. We could perhaps say that the New Aesthetic is a form of ‘breakdown’ art linked to the conspicuousness of digital technologies. Not just the use of digital tools, of course, but also a language of new media (as Manovich would say), the frameworks, structures, concepts and processes represented by computation. That is both the presentation of computation and its representational modes. It is also to the extent both that it represents computation, but also draws attention to this glitch ontology, for example through the representation of the conspicuousness of glitches and other digital artefacts (also see Menkman 2010, for a notion of critical media aesthetics and the idea of glitch studies).

Other researchers (Beaulieu et al 2012) have referred to ‘Network Realism’ to draw attention to some of these visual practices. Particularly the way of producing these networked visualisation. However, the New Aesthetic is interesting in remaining focussed on the aesthetic in the first instance (rather than the sociological, etc.). This is useful in order to examine the emerging visual culture, but also to try to discern aesthetic forms instantiated within it.

As I argued previously, the New Aesthetic is perhaps the beginning of a new kind of Archive, an Archive in Motion – what Bernard Stiegler (n.d.) called the Anamnesis (the embodied act of memory as recollection or remembrance) combined with Hypomnesis (the making-technical of memory through writing, photography, machines, etc.). Thus, particularly in relation to the affordances given by the networked and social media within which it circulates, combined with a set of nascent practices of collection, archive and display, the New Aesthetic is distinctive in a number of ways.

Firstly, it gives a description and a way of representing and mediating the world in and through the digital, that is understandable as an infinite archive (or collection). Secondly, it alternately highlights that something digital is a happening in culture – and which we have only barely been conscious of – and the way in which culture is happening to the digital. Lastly, the New Aesthetic points the direction of travel for the possibility of a Work of Art in the digital age – something Heidegger thought impossible under the conditions of technicity, but remains open, perhaps under computationality.

In this, the New Aesthetic is, however, a pharmakon, in that it is both potentially poison and cure for an age of pattern matching and pattern recognition. If the archive was the set of rules governing the range of expression following Foucault, and the database the grounding cultural logic of software cultures following Manovich, we might conclude that the New Aesthetic is the cultural eruption of the grammatisation of software logics into everyday life. The New Aesthetic under a symptomology, can be seen surfacing computational patterns, and in doing so articulates and re-presents the unseen and little understood logic of computation, which lies like plasma under, over, and in the interstices between the modular elements of an increasingly computational society.

Bibliography

Beaulieu, A. and de Rijcke, S. (2012) Network Realism, accessed 20/05/2012, http://networkrealism.wordpress.com/

Dreyfus, H. (2001) Being-in-the-world: A Commentary on Heidegger’s Being and Time, Division I. USA: MIT Press.

Heidegger, M. (1978) Being and Time. London: Wiley–Blackwell.

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.

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

Menkman, R. (2010) Glitch Studies Manifesto, accessed 20/5/2012, http://rosa-menkman.blogspot.com/2010/02/glitch-studies-manifesto.html

Moretti, F. (2007) Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History, London, Verso.

Stiegler, B. (n.d.)  Anamnesis and Hypomnesis, accessed 06/05/2012, http://arsindustrialis.org/anamnesis-and-hypomnesis

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

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, sometimes called the ‘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. 


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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

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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.

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New Book: Understanding Digital Humanities

The application of new computational techniques and visualisation technologies in the Arts & Humanities are resulting in fresh approaches and methodologies for the study of new and traditional corpora. This ‘computational turn’ takes the methods and techniques from computer science to create innovative means of close and distant reading. This edited book aims to discuss the implications and applications of what has been called Digital Humanities and the questions raised when using algorithmic techniques. Within this field there are important debates about the contrast between narrative versus database, pattern-matching versus hermeneutics, and the statistical paradigm versus the data mining paradigm. Additionally, new forms of collaboration within the Arts and Humanities are raised through modular Arts and Humanities research teams and new organisational structures (e.g. Big Humanities), together with techniques for collaborating in an interdisciplinary way with other disciplines (e.g. hard interdisciplinarity versus soft interdisciplinarity). This book draws from key researchers in the field to give a comprehensive introduction to some of the key debates and questions.

Iteracy: Reading, Writing and Running Code

Mark Marino posed a very interesting question on Twitter yesterday, asking:

Who has a good alternative to “literacy” when it comes to programming or reading code? (Marino, 2011).

It is something that I have been thinking about too with the concept of digital Bildung and computationality (see Berry 2011). However, I would like to suggest that iteracy might serve as the name for the specific skills used for understanding code and algorithmic culture – as indeed literacy (understanding texts) and numeracy (understanding numbers) do in a similar context. That is, iteracy is specifically the practice or being able to read and write code, rather than the more extensive notion of digital Bildung (see Berry 2011: 20-26).

In short, Bildung is still a key idea in the digital university, not as a subject trained in a vocational fashion to perform instrumental labour, nor as a subject skilled in a national literary culture, but rather as subject that can unify the information that society is now producing at increasing rates, and which understands new methods and practices of critical reading (code, data visualisation, patterns, narrative) and is subject to new methods of pedagogy to facilitate it (Berry 2011: 168).

So digital Bildung would include the practices of iteracy and would build on them to facilitate a broader humanistic or critical education. Here, then, iteracy is defined broadly as communicative competence in reading, writing and executing computer code.

Iteration itself, is a term used in computing to refer to the repetition of a command, code fragment, process, function, etc. Understanding iteration is a crucial skill for developing programming skills as it is a means of re-using existing processes (looping structures). But also, iteration itself, combined with constant improvements, is a key way of developing software/code (very much associated with agile programming, for instance). An example of iteration in C++ code is:

int loop = 1;
while (loop <= 10)
{
  cout << “Iteration #” << loop << endl;
  loop++;
}

Here though I want to broaden the meaning of iteracy beyond mere looping structures in programming code. What skills, then, might be associated with this notion of iteracy?[1]

  • Computational Thinking: being able to devise and understand the way in which computational systems work to be able to read and write the code associated with them. For example abstraction, pipelining, hashing, sorting, etc. (see Wing 2011).
  • Algorithms: understanding the specifically algorithmic nature of computational work, e.g. recessions, iteration, discretisation, etc.
  • Reading and Writing Code: practices in reading/writing code require new skills to enable the reader/programmer to make sense of and develop code in terms of modularity, data, encapsulation, naming, commentary, loops, recursion, etc.[2]
  • Learning programming languages: understanding one or more concrete programming languages to enable the student to develop a comparative dimension to hone skills of iteracy, e.g. procedural, functional, object-oriented, etc.
  • Aesthetics of Code: developing skills related to appreciating the aesthetic dimension of code, here I am thinking of ‘beautiful code’ and ‘elegance’ as key concepts (see Oram and Wilson 2007).
  • Data and Models: understanding the significance and importance of data, information and knowledge and their relationships to models in computational thinking.
  • *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).[3]
  • *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).

I therefore see iteracy as developing the ability to reason critically and communicate using discourse to discuss, critique and study the medium of computer code[4]. Although I have kept critical code studies and software studies within the domain of iteracy I am tempted to place these approaches within the broader definition of digital Bildung, more specifically as methods and approaches related to critical inquiry of computationality (Berry 2011) or the information society more generally (hence the ‘scare stars’). For example, Douglass (2007) poses the question:

So how do Software Studies and Critical Code Studies relate… Both are larger critical perspectives (on software and source code, respectively) that aim at a deeper understanding of digital, computational art and culture. How do they relate to each other? That is a thornier question, and perhaps unproductive at this early stage in the game when each term is a flag to rally round rather than a nation with well-defined borders. Each could arguably be defined as a subfield of the other, although I suspect what we have here is a classic Venn diagram arrangement with a high degree of potential overlap. The question will be easier to resolve when we move from proposed themes to formal definitions of methodologies. If software studies is centered around the phenomena of computation, and critical code studies is centered on the ephemera of uncompiled source, what are the distinctions (and hence advantages) that each perspective offers the other? (Douglass 2007).

This is an interesting question which I don’t propose to answer here, but both critical code studies and software studies draw on the kinds of skills I identify above as iteracy (and we could even accept that they recursively draw upon themselves too if I leave them in the definition). Nonetheless, I do think that iteracy has some heuristic advantages over terms like ‘code literacy’, ‘digital literacy’, ‘information literacy’, and so forth. Especially the connotations that iteracy has with iteration, a key part of how code functions and is read and written.

One last thought: although I make the link between iteracy and looping/repetition, I think it is probably more accurate to think of iteration not as a circle but as a spiral. That is, that learning builds on previous learning and skills in a virtuous upward spiral that develops competence and capabilities.[5]

Notes

[1] These are offered as a first draft of the kinds of skills iteracy might require. They remain very much a work in progress. 
[2] Of course computers read and write code too. We could therefore say that non-human entities have delegated iteracy.  
[3] Here I am bracketing the question over the boundaries between software studies and critical code studies but Douglass attempted a definition as ‘[f]or simplicity in these examples I’m imagining “the domain of software” as “computation, its penumbra as pre-computation, post-computation, imagined computation, representations of computation” and so-forth. “Code,” in the sense Mark uses it in his writings on Critical Code Studies, are something like “human-readable and writeable representations relating to software.”’ (Douglass 2007). Whist being fully aware of the difficulties of these definitions and acknowledging that they are still under contestation, this has some heuristic value in appreciating the general positions of the two camps. 

[4] There is an interesting question about whether we can read code without any recourse to notions of computation. Personally I do not see any reason why code cannot be read as a self-standing or even historical text. Reading within the horizon of the program itself might be very productive, particularly for large scale systems that are extremely self-referential and intertextual. 
[5] Naturally this reminds me of Hegel’s notion of History as a spiral. It also is evocative of notions of dialectics as a means of learning and education.

Bibliography

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

Douglass, J. (2007) Joining the Software Studies Initiative at UCSD, accessed 16 Sept 2011, http://writerresponsetheory.org/wordpress/2007/12/04/joining-the-software-studies-initiative-at-ucsd/
Ensmenger, N. L. (2010) Computer Boys Take Over, Cambridge: MIT Press.
Marino, M. C. (2006) Critical Code Studies, Electronic Book Review, accessed 16 Sept 2011, http://www.electronicbookreview.com/thread/electropoetics/codology

Marino, M. C. (2011) Who has a good alternative to “literacy”, marcmarino, Twitter, Sept 15 2011, accessed 16 Sept 2011, https://twitter.com/markcmarino/status/114448471813144578

Manovich, L. (2008) Software Takes Command, accessed 16 Sept 2011, http://lab.softwarestudies.com/2008/11/softbook.html

Oram, A. and Wilson, G. (2007) Beautiful Code. London: O’Reilly.

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

Wing, J. (2011) Research Notebook: Computational Thinking—What and Why?, accessed 16 Sept 2011, http://link.cs.cmu.edu/article.php?a=600