Category Archives: glitch

Signal

One of the key moments in the composition of the conditions of possibility for a digital abstraction, within which certain logical operations might be combined, performed and arranged to carry out algorithmic computation took place in 1961 when James Buie who was employed by Pacific Semiconductor patented the Transistor Transistor Logic (TTL). This was an all transistor logic for analogue circuitry that crucially standardised the voltage configuration for digital circuitry (0v-5v). This represented a development from the earlier Diode–transistor logic (DTL) which used a diode network and an amplifying function performed by a transistor, and the even earlier Resistor–transistor logic (RTL) based on resistors which handled the input network and bipolar junction transistors (BJTs) as the switching devices. The key to these logic circuits was the creation of a representation of logic functions through the arrangement of the circuitry such that key boolean logic operations could be performed. TTL offered an immediate speed increase as the transition over a diode input is slower than using a transistor. With the creation of the TTL circuitry the logical operations of NAND and NOR allowed the modular construction of a number of boolean operations that themselves served as the components of microprocessor modules, such as the Adder.

I want to explore the importance of signal in relation to the interface between the underlying analogue carrier of the digital circuitry and the logical abstraction of digital computation – that is the maximisation of signal over noise in the creation of a digital signal carrier. It is exactly at this point that the emergence of digital computation is made possible, but also a suggestive link between signal/noise that points to the use of abstraction to minimise noise throughout the design of the digital computer, and which creates a logical universe within which computational thinking, that is signal without noise, or without noise as previously understood as thermal noise, is a constituent of programming practice. This is useful for developing an understanding between notions of materiality in theorising the digital, but also in making explicit the connection between digital “signal” and voltage “signal” or between the possibility of communication of information in a digital system.

At its most basic level standard TTL circuits require a 5-volt power supply which provides the framework within which a binary dichotomy is constructed to represent the true (1) and the false (0). The TTL signal is considered “low”, that is “false” or “0”, when the voltage is between the values of 0V and 0.8V (with respect to ground) and “high”, that is “true” or “1” when the voltage lies between 2.2V and 5V (called VCC to indicate that the top voltage is provided by the power supply, known as the positive supply voltage). Voltage which lies between 0.8V and 2.0V is considered “uncertain” or “illegitimate” and may resolve to either side of the binary division depending on the prior state of the circuitry or be filtered out by the use of additional circuitry. The range of voltages allows for manufacturing tolerances and instabilities of the material carrier, such that noise, uncertainty and glitches can be tolerated. This tripartite division creates the following diagram:

Tripartite division of voltage in TTL digital circuitry

This standardisation of the grammatisation of voltage creates the first and significant “cut” of the analogue world and one which was hugely important historically. By standardising the division of the binary elements of digital computation, in effect, the interoperability of off-the-shelf digital circuits becomes possible, and thus instead of thinking in terms of electrical compatibility, voltage and so forth, the materiality of the binary circuit is abstracted away. This makes possible the design and construction of a number of key circuits which can be combined in innovative ways. It is crucial to recognise that from this point, the actual voltage of the circuits themselves vanishes into the background of computer design as the key issue becomes the creation of combination of logical circuits and the issues of propagation, cross-talk and noise emerge at the different level. In effect, the signal/noise problematic is raised to a new and different level.

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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


Dämmerung

It is an interesting question the extent to which computationality requires an ideology. If it is indeed the case that computationality represents the incorporation of identity thinking par excellence, then where there is the slightest cognitive dissonance between reality and code, then anticipatory computing can take the strain of reconciliation of any jarring disparity. This false unity, structured in part by the hollowing out of human reason and placing it within algorithms, requires only the acceptance of the superior cognitive abilities of the computational devices that mediate the algorithms. How then would this be achieved, how could computational processes sustain such a hegemonic hold over the psychic life of the individuals and groups of a computational society?

Perhaps through the sheer quantification that computationality makes possible, and which is intoxicating to the human narcissistic urge to collect, store and keep; combined with the other side of the computational coin, that is the ability to “read” these huge data stores, archives, big data, and databases through the mediation of computational visualisation. The locked promise of personal histories and stories held within the frame of the computer, combined with the key of enchanted interfaces, perfect memories, and the paradigm of convenience that accompanies the digital. But this is a limited ideological screen, and easily identified through the instabilities, glitches, exceptions and crashes that plague our computational experience. Perhaps Horkheimer’s prophetic words describing a world thrown upside down between 1926 and 1931 remain relevant today, when he says,

The more threadbare ideologies are, the crueller the means by which they are protected. The degree of effort and terror with which swaying gods are defended, shows the extent to which dusk [Dämmerung] has set in. In Europe the understanding of the masses has increased with big industry so that the sacred goods have to be protected… Whoever defends [these goods] has already [thereby] made his career: in addition to… systematically induced stupification, the threat of economic ruin, social disgrace, prison and death prevent this [newly established] understanding from violating the highest conceptual means of domination. The imperialism of big European states does not have to envy the stakes of the Middle Ages; its symbols are protected by more subtle apparatuses and more terrible armed guards than the Saints of the Church of the Middle Ages. The opponents of the inquisition made that twilight [Dämmerung] into the dawn of a new day, nor does the dusk [Dämmerung] of capitalism necessarily herald the night of humanity, though this seems to be threatening today (Horkheimer, Dämmerung: 225). 

Protected, perhaps, in computationality, by the more subtle apparatuses and more terrible armed guards of drones, algorithms, software and code.

The New Aesthetic: A Maieutic of Computationality

Screen testing at main stage for the Republican convention in Tampa, Fla (2012)

Many hasty claims are now being made that the new aesthetic is over, finished, or defunct. I think that as with many of these things we will have to wait and see to the extent to which the new aesthetic is “new”, an “aesthetic”, used in practice, or has any trajectory associated with it. For me, the responses it generates are as interesting as the concept of the new aesthetic itself.

And regarding the “remembering” (perhaps, territorialization) of new media and previous practices, let’s not forget that forgetting things (deteritorialization) can be extremely productive, both theoretically and in everyday practice (as elpis, perhaps, if not as entelechy of new generations). Indeed, forgetting can be like forgiving,[1] and in this sense can allow the absorption or remediation of previous forms (a past bequeathed by the dead) that may have been contradictory or conflictual to be transcended at a higher level (this may also happen through a dialectical move, of course).[2] This is, then, a politics of memory as well as an aesthetic.

But the claim that “NA is that it seems to be all gesture and no ideology” is clearly mistaken. Yes, NA is clearly profoundly gestural and is focused on the practice of doing, in some sense, even if the doing is merely curatorial or collecting other things (as archive/database of the present). The doing is also post-human in that algorithms and their delegated responsibility and control appears to be a returning theme (as the programming industry, as logics of military colonisation of everyday life, as technical mediation, as speed constitutive of absolute past, or as reconstitution of knowledge itself). It is also ideological to the extent that is an attempt to further develop a post-human aesthetic (and of course, inevitably this will/may/should end in failure) but nonetheless reflects in interesting ways a process of cashing out the computational in the realm of the aesthetic – in some senses a maieutic of computational memory, seeing and doing (a “remembering” of glitch ontology or computationality).

As to the charge of the inevitability of historicism to counter the claims of the new aesthetic, one might wish to consider the extent to which the building of the new aesthetic may share the values of computer science (highly ideological, I might add) and which is also profoundly ahistorical and which enables the delegation of the autonomy of the new aesthetic (as code/software) as a computational sphere. But this is not to deny the importance of critical theory here, far from it, but rather it is to raise a question about computation’s immunity to the claims that critical approaches inevitably make – as Ian Bogost recently declared (about a different subject), are these not just “self-described radical leftist academics” and their “predictable critiques”. Could not the new aesthetics form an alliance here with object-oriented ontology?

Within this assemblage, the industrialisation of programming and memory becomes linked to the industrialisation of “seeing” (and here I am thinking of mediatic industries). What I am trying to gesture towards, if only tentatively, is that if the new aesthetic, as an aesthetic of the radically autonomous claims of a highly computational post-digital society, might format the world in ways which profoundly determine, if not offer concrete tendencies, towards an aesthetic which is immune to historicism – in other words the algorithms aren’t listening to the humanists – do we need to follow Stephen Ramsay’s call for Humanists to build?

Here I point to both the industrialisation of memory but also the drive towards a permanent revolution in all forms of knowledge that the computational industries ceaselessly aim towards. That is, the new aesthetic may be a reflexive sighting (the image, the imaginary, the imagined?) and acknowledgement of the mass-produced temporal objects of the programming industries, in as much as they are shared structures, forms, and means, that is, algorithms and codes, that construct new forms of reception in terms that consciousness and collective unconsciousness will increasingly correspond.

Notes

[1] “Forgiving is the only reaction which does not merely re-act but acts anew and unexpectedly, unconditioned by the act which provoked it and therefore freeing from its consequences both the one who forgives and the one who is forgiven” (Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, page 241), “and if he trespass against thee… and… turn against to thee, saying, I changed my mind; thou shalt release him” (Luke 17: 3-4)
[1] Here I am thinking in terms of Mannheim’s concept of “Generation Entelechy” and “Generation Unit” to consider the ways in which the quicker the tempo of social cultural change, here understood as represented through digital technology, the greater the chances that a particular generation location’s group will react to changed circumstances by producing their own entelechy. 

New Aesthetic Argumentum Ad Hominem

Papercraft Self Portrait – 2009 (Testroete)

One of the most frustrating contemporary ways to attack any new idea, practice or moment is to label it as “buzz-worthy” or an “internet meme”. The weakness of this attack should be obvious, but strangely it has become a powerful way to dismiss things without applying any any critical thought to the content of the object of discussion. In other words it is argumentation petitio principii, where the form of the argument is “the internet meme, the new aesthetic, should be ignored because it is an internet meme”. Or even, in some forms, an argumentum ad hominem, where the attack is aimed at James Bridle (as the originator of the term) rather than the new aesthetic itself. Equally, the attacks may also be combined.

I think the whole ‘internet meme’, ‘buzz’, ‘promotional strategy’ angle on the new aesthetic is indicative of a wider set of worries in relation to a new scepticism, as it were (related also to the skepticism movement too, possibly). We see it on Twitter where the medium of communication seems to encourage a kind of mass scepticism, where everyone makes the same point simultaneous that the other side is blindly following, a ‘fanboy’, irrational, suspect, or somehow beholden to a dark power to close, restrict or tighten individual freedoms – of course, the ‘I’ is smart enough to reject the illusion and unmask the hidden forces. This is also, I think, a worry of being caught out, being laughed at, or distracted by (yet) another internet fad. I also worry that the new aesthetic ‘internet meme’ criticism is particularly ad hominem, usually aimed, as it is, towards its birth within the creative industries. I think we really need to move on from this level of scepticism and be more dialectical in our attitude towards the possibilities in, and suggested by, the new aesthetic. This is where critical theory can be a valuable contributor to the debate.

For example, part of the new aesthetic, is a form of cultural practice which is related to a postmodern and fundamentally paranoid vision of being watched, observed, coded, processed or formatted. I find particularly fascinating the aesthetic dimension to this, in as much as the representational practices are often (but not always) retro, and in some senses, tangential to the physical, cultural, or even computational processes actually associated with such technologies. This is both, I suppose, a distraction, in as much as it misses the target, if we assume that the real can ever be represented accurately (which I don’t), but also and more promisingly an aesthetic that remains firmly human mediated, contra to the claims of those who want to “see like machines”. That is, the new aesthetic is an aestheticization of computational technology and computational techniques more generally. It is also fascinating in terms of the refusal of the new aesthetic to abide by the careful boundary monitoring of art and the ‘creative industry’ more generally, really bringing to the fore the questions raised by Liu, for example, in The Laws of Cool. One might say that it follows the computational propensity towards dissolving of traditional boundaries and disciplinary borders.

I also find the new aesthetic important for it has an inbuilt potentiality towards critical reflexivity, both towards itself (does the new aesthetic exist?) but also towards both artistic practice (is this art?), curation (should this be in galleries?), and technology (what is technology?). There is also, I believe, an interesting utopian kernel to the new aesthetic, in terms of its visions and creations – what we might call the paradigmatic forms – which mark the crossing over of certain important boundaries, such as culture/nature, technology/human, economic/aesthetic and so on. Here I am thinking of the notion of augmented humanity, or humanity 2.0, for example. This criticality is manifested in the new aesthetic’s continual seeking to ‘open up’ black boxes of technology, to look at developments in science, technology and technique and to try to place them within histories and traditions – in the reemergence of social contradictions, for example. But even an autonomous new aesthetic, as it were, points towards the anonymous and universal political and cultural domination represented by computational techniques which are now deeply embedded in systems that we experience in all aspects of our lives. There is much to explore here.

Moroso pixelated sofa and nanimaquina rug, featured on Design Milk

The new aesthetic, of course, is as much symptomatic of a computational world as itself subject to the forces that drive that world. This means that it has every potential to be sold, standardised, and served up to the willing mass of consumers as any other neatly packaged product. Perhaps even more so, with its ease of distribution and reconfiguration within computational systems, such as Twitter and Tumblr. But it doesn’t have to be that way, and so far I have more hope that it even in its impoverished consumerized form, it still serves to serve notice of computational thinking and processes, which stand out then against other logics. This is certainly one of the interesting dimensions to the new aesthetic both in terms of the materiality of computationality, but also in terms of the need to understand the logics of postmodern capitalism, even ones as abstract as obscure computational systems of control.

For me, the very possibility of a self-defined new ‘aesthetic’ enables this potentiality – of course, there are no simple concepts as such, but the new aesthetic, for me, acts as a “bridge” (following Deleuze and Guattari for a moment). By claiming that it is new ‘aesthetic’ makes possible the conceptual resources associated with and materialised in practices, which may need to be “dusted off” and to be used as if they were, in a sense, autonomous (that is, even, uncritical). This decoupling of the concept (no matter that in actuality one might claim that no such decoupling could really have happened) potentially changes the nature of the performances that are facilitated or granted by the space opened within the constellation of concepts around the ‘new aesthetic’ (again, whatever that is) – in a sense this might also render components within the new aesthetic inseparable as the optic of the new aesthetic, like any medium, may change the nature of what can be seen. Again, this is not necessarily a bad thing though.

Glitch Textiles by Phillip David Stearns

Another way of putting it, perhaps, would be that a social ontology is made possible, which, within the terms of the the constellation of practices and concepts grounding it, is both distanced from and placed in opposition to existing and historical practices. Where this is interesting is that, so far, the new aesthetic, as a set of curatorial or collectionist practices, has been deeply recursive in its manifestation – both computational in structure (certainly something I am interested in about it) – and also strikingly visual (so far) – and here the possibility of an immanent critique central to the new aesthetic can be identified, I think. Of course, it is too early to say how far we can push this, especially with something as nascent as the new aesthetic, which is still very much a contested constellation of concepts and ideas and playing out in various media forms, etc., but nonetheless, I suggest that one might still detect the outlines of a kind of mediated non-identity implicit within the new aesthetic, and this makes it interesting. So I am not claiming, in any sense, that the new aesthetic was “founded on critical thinking”, rather that in a similar way that computational processes are not “critical thinking” but contain a certain non-reflexive reflexivity when seen through their recursive strategies – but again this is a potentiality that needs to be uncovered, and not in any sense determined. This is, perhaps, the site of a politics of the new aesthetic.

Certainly there is much work to be done with the new aesthetic, and I, for one, do not think that everything is fixed in aspic – either by Bridle or any of the other commentators. Indeed, there is a need for thinking about the new aesthetic from a number of different perspectives, that for me is the point at which the new aesthetic is interesting for thinking with, and pushing it away seems to me to be an “over-hasty” move when it clearly points to a either a fresh constellations of concepts and ideas, or certainly a means for us to think about the old constellations in a new way. This means that we should not aim to be either for or against the new aesthetic, as such, but rather more interested in the philosophical and political work the new aesthetic makes possible.

New Aesthetic Argumentum Ad Hominem

Papercraft Self Portrait – 2009 (Testroete)

One of the most frustrating contemporary ways to attack any new idea, practice or moment is to label it as “buzz-worthy” or an “internet meme”. The weakness of this attack should be obvious, but strangely it has become a powerful way to dismiss things without applying any any critical thought to the content of the object of discussion. In other words it is argumentation petitio principii, where the form of the argument is “the internet meme, the new aesthetic, should be ignored because it is an internet meme”. Or even, in some forms, an argumentum ad hominem, where the attack is aimed at James Bridle (as the originator of the term) rather than the new aesthetic itself. Equally, the attacks may also be combined.

I think the whole ‘internet meme’, ‘buzz’, ‘promotional strategy’ angle on the new aesthetic is indicative of a wider set of worries in relation to a new scepticism, as it were (related also to the skepticism movement too, possibly). We see it on Twitter where the medium of communication seems to encourage a kind of mass scepticism, where one (the one as Das Man) assumes a priori that the other side is blindly following, a ‘fanboy’, irrational, suspect, or somehow beholden to a dark power to close, restrict or tighten individual freedoms – of course, the ‘I’ is smart enough to reject the illusion and unmask the hidden forces. This is also, I think, a worry of being caught out, being laughed at, or distracted by (yet) another internet fad. I also worry that the new aesthetic ‘internet meme’ criticism is particularly ad hominem, usually aimed, as it is, towards its birth within the creative industries. I think we really need to move on from this level of scepticism and be more dialectical in our attitude towards the possibilities in, and suggested by, the new aesthetic. This is where critical theory can be a valuable contributor to the debate.

For example, part of the new aesthetic, is a form of cultural practice which is related to a postmodern and fundamentally paranoid vision of being watched, observed, coded, processed or formatted. I find particularly fascinating the aesthetic dimension to this, in as much as the representational practices are often (but not always) retro, and in some senses, tangential to the physical, cultural, or even computational processes actually associated with such technologies. This is both, I suppose, a distraction, in as much as it misses the target, if we assume that the real can ever be represented accurately (which I don’t), but also and more promisingly an aesthetic that remains firmly human mediated, contra to the claims of those who want to “see like machines”. That is, the new aesthetic is an aestheticization of computational technology and computational techniques more generally. It is also fascinating in terms of the refusal of the new aesthetic to abide by the careful boundary monitoring of art and the ‘creative industry’ more generally, really bringing to the fore the questions raised by Liu, for example, in The Laws of Cool. One might say that it follows the computational propensity towards dissolving of traditional boundaries and disciplinary borders.

I also find the new aesthetic important for it has an inbuilt potentiality towards critical reflexivity, both towards itself (does the new aesthetic exist?) but also towards both artistic practice (is this art?), curation (should this be in galleries?), and technology (what is technology?). There is also, I believe, an interesting utopian kernel to the new aesthetic, in terms of its visions and creations – what we might call the paradigmatic forms – which mark the crossing over of certain important boundaries, such as culture/nature, technology/human, economic/aesthetic and so on. Here I am thinking of the notion of augmented humanity, or humanity 2.0, for example. This criticality is manifested in the new aesthetic’s continual seeking to ‘open up’ black boxes of technology, to look at developments in science, technology and technique and to try to place them within histories and traditions – in the reemergence of social contradictions, for example. But even an autonomous new aesthetic, as it were, points towards the anonymous and universal political and cultural domination represented by computational techniques which are now deeply embedded in systems that we experience in all aspects of our lives. There is much to explore here.

Moroso pixelated sofa and nanimaquina rug, featured on Design Milk

The new aesthetic, of course, is as much symptomatic of a computational world as itself subject to the forces that drive that world. This means that it has every potential to be sold, standardised, and served up to the willing mass of consumers as any other neatly packaged product. Perhaps even more so, with its ease of distribution and reconfiguration within computational systems, such as Twitter and Tumblr. But it doesn’t have to be that way, and so far I have more hope that it even in its impoverished consumerized form, it still serves to serve notice of computational thinking and processes, which stand out then against other logics. This is certainly one of the interesting dimensions to the new aesthetic both in terms of the materiality of computationality, but also in terms of the need to understand the logics of postmodern capitalism, even ones as abstract as obscure computational systems of control.

For me, the very possibility of a self-defined new ‘aesthetic’ enables this potentiality – of course, there are no simple concepts as such, but the new aesthetic, for me, acts as a “bridge” (following Deleuze and Guattari for a moment). By claiming that it is new ‘aesthetic’ makes possible the conceptual resources associated with and materialised in practices, which may need to be “dusted off” and to be used as if they were, in a sense, autonomous (that is, even, uncritical). This decoupling of the concept (no matter that in actuality one might claim that no such decoupling could really have happened) potentially changes the nature of the performances that are facilitated or granted by the space opened within the constellation of concepts around the ‘new aesthetic’ (again, whatever that is) – in a sense this might also render components within the new aesthetic inseparable as the optic of the new aesthetic, like any medium, may change the nature of what can be seen. Again, this is not necessarily a bad thing though. 

Glitch Textiles by Phillip David Stearns

Another way of putting it, perhaps, would be that a social ontology is made possible, which, within the terms of the the constellation of practices and concepts grounding it, is both distanced from and placed in opposition to existing and historical practices. Where this is interesting is that, so far, the new aesthetic, as a set of curatorial or collectionist practices, has been deeply recursive in its manifestation – both computational in structure (certainly something I am interested in about it) – and also strikingly visual (so far) – and here the possibility of an immanent critique central to the new aesthetic can be identified, I think. Of course, it is too early to say how far we can push this, especially with something as nascent as the new aesthetic, which is still very much a contested constellation of concepts and ideas and playing out in various media forms, etc., but nonetheless, I suggest that one might still detect the outlines of a kind of mediated non-identity implicit within the new aesthetic, and this makes it interesting. So I am not claiming, in any sense, that the new aesthetic was “founded on critical thinking”, rather that in a similar way that computational processes are not “critical thinking” but contain a certain non-reflexive reflexivity when seen through their recursive strategies – but again this is a potentiality that needs to be uncovered, and not in any sense determined. This is, perhaps, the site of a politics of the new aesthetic.

Certainly there is much work to be done with the new aesthetic, and I, for one, do not think that everything is fixed in aspic – either by Bridle or any of the other commentators. Indeed, there is a need for thinking about the new aesthetic from a number of different perspectives, that for me is the point at which the new aesthetic is interesting for thinking with, and pushing it away seems to me to be an “over-hasty” move when it clearly points to a either a fresh constellations of concepts and ideas, or certainly a means for us to think about the old constellations in a new way. This means that we should not aim to be either for or against the new aesthetic, as such, but rather more interested in the philosophical and political work the new aesthetic makes possible.

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.

New Book: New Aesthetic, New Anxieties

New Aesthetic New Anxieties is the result of a five day Book Sprint organized by Michelle Kasprzak and led by Adam Hyde at V2_ from June 17–21, 2012. Authors: David M. Berry, Michel van Dartel, Michael Dieter, Michelle Kasprzak, Nat Muller, Rachel O’Reilly and José Luis de Vicente. Facilitated by: Adam Hyde

You can download the e-book as an EPUB, MOBI, or PDF.

EPUB: http://www.v2.nl/files/new-aesthetic-new-anxieties-epub
MOBI: http://www.v2.nl/files/new-aesthetic-new-anxieties-mobi
PDF: http://www.v2.nl/files/new-aesthetic-new-anxieties-pdf

Annotatable online version: http://www.booki.cc/new-aesthetic-new-anxieties/_draft/_v/1.0/preface/

The New Aesthetic was a design concept and netculture phenomenon launched into the world by London designer James Bridle in 2011. It continues to attract the attention of media art, and throw up associations to a variety of situated practices, including speculative design, net criticism, hacking, free and open source software development, locative media, sustainable hardware and so on. This is how we have considered the New Aesthetic: as an opportunity to rethink the relations between these contexts in the emergent episteme of computationality. There is a desperate need to confront the political pressures of neoliberalism manifested in these infrastructures. Indeed, these are risky, dangerous and problematic times; a period when critique should thrive. But here we need to forge new alliances, invent and discover problems of the common that nevertheless do not eliminate the fundamental differences in this ecology of practices. In this book, perhaps provocatively, we believe a great deal could be learned from the development of the New Aesthetic not only as a mood, but as a topic and fix for collective feeling, that temporarily mobilizes networks. Is it possible to sustain and capture these atmospheres of debate and discussion beyond knee-jerk reactions and opportunistic self-promotion? These are crucial questions that the New Aesthetic invites us to consider, if only to keep a critical network culture in place.

Also worth referring to:

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.




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