Category Archives: Uncategorized

Continuous Interfaces

Apple’s Continuity technology across devices

Under the contemporary condition of computation the question of the interface requires us to attend to that which in everyday practice we attend to continuously.[1] In this short article I want to think about the way in which the interface as a thin membrane over computational devices is increasingly being stretched across computational devices, objects, practices and processes to create what I am calling continuous interfaces. This has political economic, material and phenomenological dimensions. Here, I focus on the relationship between a computational imaginary related to ubiquitous computing and its important links between design, interface patterns and material technologies rather than its political economic drivers, for example in terms of lock-in, ecological ideas of digital media, and platform hegemony (see Maeda 2015 for discussion of the importance of design as a driver of industry growth and competitiveness), however the materiality of technical devices remains crucial to understanding current technology imaginaries.[2]

The notion of continuous interfaces I am drawing from the concept of continuous computing which has been deployed to talk about the increasing way in which ubiquitous computing is being embedded in devices which are in tension with their environment – for example in Apple’s new continuity technology (Apple 2015). It is also relevant to the notion of continuous partial attention and the work of Linda Stone who explains that continuous partial attention,

describes how many of us use our attention today. It is different from simple multi-tasking. The two are differentiated by the impulse that motivates them. When we multi-task, we are motivated by a desire to be more productive and more efficient. One or both of the activities we’re doing is automatic or routine, and requires very little cognitive processing… To pay continuous partial attention is to pay partial attention — continuously. It is motivated by a desire to be a live node on the network. Another way of saying this is that we want to connect and be connected (Stone 2010, emphasis removed). 

In the notion of continuous interfaces, the term continuity refers to the unbroken and consistent existence or operation of something over time but also gestures towards a media notion of continuity of broadcast, in the maintenance of continuous action and self-consistent detail in the various scenes of a film or broadcast. Thomson, for example argues that to enable a new area of continuous computing depends on three factors (adapted from Thomson 2015),

  • Physical design
  • Interaction models
  • The ability of the technical device to interact with its environment  

The experience of the surface of computation has intensified in recent years, both in terms of its growth as a mediating technology for social and cultural life, but also in terms of conceptual means for transcending institutional and technical boundaries between different spheres. Current manifestations of continuous interfaces have tended towards individual computing, the passing of a theoretical user interface intentionality across different computational surfaces, for example. But one could imagine a public continuity as a social imaginary which contributes to public culture and an imagined community although there appears to be little work in this area (see Anderson 2006 for a discussion of imagined community).

So continuity as a concept has links between hyper-individualised experiences of computation and closing the gap between different personal devices, and individualised goal-oriented behaviours, that is, instrumental rationality (Berry 2014). This also includes the micro-level of the individualised technologies across which various personal technologies that stretch computation across lives, life histories and sociality. This is a problematic I have argued elsewhere (Berry 2011, 2014) and concerns questions of interoperability, of inter or intra-computation and object-oriented paradigms of intercommunication between technical devices which now appears to have begun to be augmented through design, as a horizon of understanding provided by flat interfaces (Berry 2015).[3]

The requirement for a shared constellation of representations, axiomatic concepts and grammars of interaction requires a complex assemblage of technologies, articulated through code and design, that has characteristics of responsive design combined with a tight coupling between the materiality of the technical device and the articulation of the principles of the design language. The recent turn towards flat design has been manifested in the use of a double articulation of the geometric fundamentals of the primitives of the interface combined with a neo-materialist abstraction of fictional materials from which the interface is imagined to be constructed. The obduracy of the interface is guaranteed through technical restrictions built into the interface toolbox, both in terms of API functionality but also the sophisticated deployment of integrated development environments (IDEs). But there is also a mythic reinforcement through the allegory of a material form that guarantees the conceptual and practical instantiation of interface design, so in the case of Google it is paper, and for Apple it is glass. 
In Berry (2014) I talked about an analytical method of both separating the interface from the underlying code in a depth model of analysis that used the concepts of commodity and mechanism to point to the structural form of computational systems. These were defined as,
  • Commodity: accessible via the interface/surface and providing or procuring a commodity/service/function. Provides a relative stability for the consumption of ends. The commodity is usually articulated at the level of the interactional layer, usually visually, although this may be through other sensory interfaces level.
  • 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 mechanisms are usually delegated within the codal layer, and thus hidden from the interactional.

This is nonetheless a simplification of the architectural structure of the computer allowing the fundamental dimensions of the the relationship between the interface (commodity) and the code (mechanism) to be brought forward. In relation to an approach to thinking about the interface qua interface, particularly in relation to a method or approach that contributes to interface criticism it might be helpful to zoom in on the interface not only as a thin layer or surface upon computational machinery, but also as a discrete computational form in and of itself. Here I am thinking about the possibility of thinking of the interface as a machine in its own right, in terms of what we might call thin computation that tends to be optimised towards breadth rather than depth in terms of its relationship to the functional properties of the computer, but also in a spatial and temporal dimension.[4]  There is also an important question around the scaler function of continuous interfaces for transcending and scaling down planetary-scale computation to a local and individual scale (see Bratton 2014)

Investigating these developments requires the triangulation of critical approaches to technologies, systems, interfaces, media and culture, but also supplemented with new methods for reading (and perhaps writing) continuity. Some tactics which might be deployed in a continuous interface criticism might include,

  • Disrupting the bluetooth and WiFi antennas that enable the continuity experience. 
  • Connecting and disconnecting new devices into the fabric of continuity technologies. 
  • Connecting devices across platforms, e.g. across material and flat design paradigms. 
  • Overloading the data or computational power to cause glitches to be surfaced in terms of the continuous interface. 
  • Hijacking the public continuity functionality of users’ personal technology either to invert the public/private continuity relationship, or to open the black box of such an “invisible” technology.[5] 
  • Hacking the real-time experience of continuous interfaces by slowing down (increasing the latency) of computational translation between material objects.[6]

Continuous interfaces offers not only a conceptual means of thinking about a possible new phase in interface design, but also invites us to think about the way in which one can deploy interface criticism under continuous computing. This helps to disrupt not just the traditional surfaces of computation, but also a growing tapestry of computational moments, objects, glances, notifications and complications that are weaved across the life-world and which we attend to continuously.


[1] This article was prompted by attending the Interfaces: Method and Critique for Designed Cultures conference at the University of Warwick, 24-25 June 2015. See
[2] Maeda (2015) argues “I predict large tech companies will place greater attention on design. This is not dissimilar to the automobile industry as it began to mature — the famous point when Henry Ford refused to sell variations in the only color that mattered, compared with GM, which diversified its designs to appeal to larger populations across multiple brands like Chevrolet, Buick and Cadillac with differing emotional appeal. We see it already with Google’s efforts around Android’s enhanced “Material” visual language led by Matias Duarte, eBay’s design leadership efforts led by John Donahoe and IBM’s resurgence in the design space with its new Austin center led by Phil Gilbert”
[3] Design as a theoretical limit for the reconciliation of a highly fragmented computation experience, but also life in postmodern capitalism is interestingly reflected on by Latour (2008), where he argues “today everyone with an iPhone knows that it would be absurd to distinguish what has been designed from what has been planned, calculated, arrayed, arranged, packed, packaged, defined, projected, tinkered, written down in code, disposed of and so on. From now on, ‘to design’ could mean equally any or all of those verbs. Secondly, it has grown in extension – design is applicable to ever larger assemblages of production. The range of things that can be designed is far wider now than a limited list of ordinary or even luxury goods”.
[4] The production of a series of subjectivities constantly overloaded and reinforced through the interface as a temporal object which mediates experience can be captured in the idea of a subjectivity specific to a condition on contextual computing, continuous interfaces and flat design, what we might term flat dasein. That is a minimal subjectivity augmented through environmental and non-conscious cognition from machinic faculties produced via the programming industries and particularly the cognitive-software-design complex of Silicon Valley. 
[5] For an example of a hack of Apple’s instantiation of continuous computing is the Continuity Activation Tool, see
[6] Treating continuity transfers as a logistics network, and selectively slowing down and speeding up the continuity computational objects would be an interesting example of playfully demonstrating the continuity system. 


Anderson, B. (2006) Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, London: Verso Books.

Apple (2015) Connect your iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, and Mac using Continuity, accessed 25/06/15,

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

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

Berry, D. M. (2015) Flat Theory, Boundary 2, accessed 25/06/2015,

Bratton, B. (2014) The Black Stack, e-flux, accessed 25/06/2015,

Latour, B. (2008) A Cautious Prometheus? A Few Steps Toward a Philosophy of Design (with Special Attention to Peter Sloterdijk), accessed 25/06/2015,

Maeda, J. (2015) Weekend Read: Why Design Matters More than Moore, The Wall Street Journal, accessed 25/06/2015,

Stone, L. (2010) Continuous Partial Attention, accessed 25/06/2015,

Thomson, B. (2015) Apple Watch and Continuous Computing, Stratechery, accessed 25/06/2015,


Signal Lab

As part of the Sussex Humanities Lab, at the University of Sussex, we are developing a research group clustered around information theoretic themes of signal/noise, signal transmission, sound theorisation, musicisation, simulation/emulation, materiality, game studies theoretic work, behavioural ideologies and interface criticism. The cluster is grouped under the label Signal Lab and we aim to explore the specific manifestations of the mode of existence of technical objects. This is explicitly a critical and political economic confrontation with computation and computational rationalities.

Signal Lab will focus on techno-epistemological questions around the assembly and re-assembley of past media objects, postdigital media and computational sites. This involves both attending to the impressions of the physical hardware (as a form of techne) and the logical and mathematical intelligence resulting from software (as a form of logos). Hence we aim to undertake an exploration of the technological conditions of the sayable and thinkable in culture and how the inversion of reason as rationality calls for the excavation of how techniques, technologies and computational medias direct human and non-human utterances without reducing techniques to mere apparatuses.

This involves the tracing of the contingent emergence of ideas and knowledge in systems in space and time, to understand distinctions between noise and speech, signal and absence, message and meaning. This includes an examination of the use of technical media to create the exclusion of noise as both a technical and political function and the relative importance of chaos and irregularity within the mathematization of chaos itself. It is also a questioning of the removal of the central position of human subjectivity and the development of a new machine-subject in information and data rich societies of control and their attendant political economies.

Within the context of information theoretic questions, we revisit the old chaos, and the return of the fear of, if not aesthetic captivation toward, a purported contemporary gaping meaninglessness. Often associated with a style of nihilism, a lived cynicism and jaded glamour of emptiness or misanthropy. Particularly in relation to a political aesthetic that desires the liquidation of the subject which in the terms of our theoretic approach, creates not only a regression of consciousness but also the regression to real barbarism. That is, data, signal, mathematical noise, information and computationalism conjure the return of fate and the complicity of myth with nature and a concomitant total immaturity of society and a return to a society in which self-relfection can no longer open its eyes, and in which the subject not only does not exist but instead becomes understood as a cloud of data points, a dividual and a undifferentiated data stream.

Signal Lab will therefore pay attention both to the synchronic and diachronic dimensions of computational totality, taking the concrete meaningful whole and essential elements of computational life and culture. This involves the explanation of the emergence of the present given social forces in terms of some past structures and general tendencies of social change. That is, that within a given totality, there is a process of growing conflict among opposite tendencies and forces which constitutes the internal dynamism of a given system and can partly be examined at the level of behaviour and partly at the level of subjective motivation. This is to examine the critical potentiality of signal in relation to the possibility of social forces and their practices and articulations within a given situation and how they can play their part in contemporary history. This potentially opens the door to new social imaginaries and political possibility for emancipatory politics in a digital age.

Workshop for Digital Humanities (MMU)

The following are for the MMU.

The Digital Shakespeare project  website is located at Delighted Beauty and some of the visualisations generated by Stephan Thiel are on Understanding Shakespeare.

The Digital Humanities data is available on this website.

The Gephi Link is here for visualisations of social networks etc..


Sample Raw Text Version

<b 001170 English Shakespeare Gutenberg Cheesman> 

Othello: Her father loved me, oft invited me,
Still questioned me the story of my life,
From year to year: the battles, sieges, fortunes
That I have passed.
I ran it through, even from my boyish days,
To the very moment that he bade me tell it;
Wherein I spake of most disastrous chances,
Of moving accidents by flood and field
Of hair-breadth scapes i' the imminent deadly breach,
Of being taken by the insolent foe
And sold to slavery; of my redemption thence
And portance in my travels' history;
Wherein of antres vast and deserts idle,
Rough quarries, rocks and hills whose heads touch heaven
It was my hint to speak ñ such was my process -
And of the Cannibals that each other eat,
The Anthropophagi and men whose heads
Do grow beneath their shoulders. This to hear
Would Desdemona seriously incline;
But still the house-affairs would draw her thence,
Which ever as she could with haste dispatch,
She'd come again, and with a greedy ear
Devour up my discourse; which I observing,
Took once a pliant hour, and found good means
To draw from her a prayer of earnest heart
That I would all my pilgrimage dilate,
Whereof by parcels she had something heard,
But not intentively. I did consent,
And often did beguile her of her tears,
When I did speak of some distressful stroke
That my youth suffered. My story being done,
She gave me for my pains a world of sighs:
She swore, in faith, 'twas strange, 'twas passing strange,
'Twas pitiful, 'twas wondrous pitiful!
She wished she had not heard it, yet she wished
That heaven had made her such a man; she thanked me,
And bade me, if I had a friend that loved her,
I should but teach him how to tell my story
And that would woo her. Upon this hint I spake.
She loved me for the dangers I had passed,
And I loved her that she did pity them.
This only is the witchcraft I have used:
Here comes the lady; let her witness it.

TEI Lite (XML) version

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="ISO-8859-1"?>
<?xml-stylesheet type="text/css"  href="othello.css"?> 
<!-- ------------------------------------------------------------------------ --!>
<!--              XML version created by David M. Berry 2011                  --!>
<!-- for the Delighted Beauty Digital Shakespeare Project, Swansea University --!>
<!--                                                                          --!>
<!--              b001170 German 0020 Swaczynna 1972 no tags.xml              --!>
<!--                                                                          --!>
<!-- Version History                                                          --!>
<!--                                                                          --!>
<!-- 0.1 DMB 2011 TEI Lite Version Created                                    --!>
<!--                                                                          --!>
<!-- ------------------------------------------------------------------------ --!>
<!DOCTYPE TEI.2 SYSTEM "teixbaby.dtd">
     <scriptStmt id="0020">
<text xml:lang="de">
  <div type="act" n="1">
    <div type="scene" n="3">
		<sp who="Othello"><speaker><hi rend="i">Othello</hi></speaker>
		<l n="1" part="Y">Ihr Vater liebte mich, lud mich oft ein,</l>
		<l n="2" part="Y">fragte stets nach der Chronik meines Lebens,</l>
		<l n="3" part="Y">von Jahr zu Jahr; nach Schlachten, Stürmen, Schicksalen</l>
		<l n="4" part="Y">die ich erlebt -</l>
		<l n="5" part="Y">ich lief es durch, von Knabentagen an,</l>
		<l n="6" part="Y">bis zu dem Augenblick da er mich fragte.</l>
		<l n="7" part="Y">Sprach von bedrohlichen Ereignissen,</l>
		<l n="8" part="Y">von schrecklicher Gefahr zu See und Land;</l>
		<l n="9" part="Y">wie Mauerbruch ums Haar mich tötete;</l>
		<l n="10" part="Y">wie mich der Feind höhnisch gefangennahm -</l>
		<l n="11" part="Y">als Sklaven mich verkaufte, wie ich die Freiheit fand,</l>
		<l n="12" part="Y">und wies so ging im Laufe meiner Reisen;</l>
		<l n="13" part="Y">wobei von weiten Höhlen, öden Wüsten,</l>
		<l n="14" part="Y">Felsklippen, Bergen, die den Himmel streifen,</l>
		<l n="15" part="Y">vielfach die Rede war, so ging ich vor -</l>
		<l n="16" part="Y">von Kannibalen, die einander fressen;</l>
		<l n="17" part="Y">Antropophagen, und Menschen deren Kopf</l>
		<l n="18" part="Y">unter den Schultern wächst - all dies zu hören,</l>
		<l n="19" part="Y">war Desdemona mit viel Ernst bestrebt;</l>
		<l n="20" part="Y">doch immer zog die Hausarbeit sie fort,</l>
		<l n="21" part="Y">und wenn sie die in Eile ausgeführt,</l>
		<l n="22" part="Y">kam sie zurück, und schlang mit gierigem Ohr</l>
		<l n="23" part="Y">was ich erzählte; ich bemerkte das,</l>
		<l n="24" part="Y">und nutzte einmal eine gute Stunde,</l>
		<l n="25" part="Y">wo mir gelang dass sie mich herzlich bat,</l>
		<l n="26" part="Y">ihr meine ganze Pilgerfahrt zu schildern,</l>
		<l n="27" part="Y">die sie in Teilen schon vernommen hatte,</l>
		<l n="28" part="Y">aber nicht voll bewusst, ich stimmte zu,</l>
		<l n="29" part="Y">und oft verleitete ich sie zu Tränen,</l>
		<l n="30" part="Y">wenn ich von manchem schweren Schlag erzählte</l>
		<l n="31" part="Y">der meine Jugend traf - war ich zu Ende,</l>
		<l n="32" part="Y">gab sie mir für mein Leiden tausend Seufzer;</l>
		<l n="33" part="Y">schwor Wirklich es sei seltsam, äußerst seltsam;</l>
		<l n="34" part="Y">es sei erschütternd, wundersam erschütternd;</l>
		<l n="35" part="Y">wünschte sie hätt es nicht gehört, doch wünschte</l>
		<l n="36" part="Y">sie wäre solch ein Mann - sie dankte mir,</l>
		<l n="37" part="Y">und bat mich, wenn ein Freund von mir sie liebe,</l>
		<l n="38" part="Y">sollt er ihr nur mein Leben nacherzählen,</l>
		<l n="39" part="Y">das würde sie gewinnen. Auf diesen Wink hin sprach ich -</l>
		<l n="40" part="Y">sie liebte mich weil ich Gefahr erlitt,</l>
		<l n="41" part="Y">ich liebte sie für dies ihr Mitgefühl.</l>
		<l n="42" part="Y">Das ist die Hexerei die ich gebraucht -</l>
		<l n="43" part="Y">hier kommt das Fräulein, lasst sie es bezeugen.</l>

Text tools (in order of complexity):

  1. Wordle:
  2. Google ngrams:
  3. Tapor: (automatically uses Glasgow stop words)
  4. ManyEyes (IBM):

Image Analysis

(Manovich 2011, Imageplot of Mondrian 1905_1917)

ImagePlot visualization software:

ImagePlot is a free software tool that visualizes collections of images and video of any size. It is implemented as a macro which works with the open source image processing program ImageJ.

ImagePlot was developed by the Software Studies Initiative with support from the National Endowment for Humanities (NEH), the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2), and the Center for Research in Computing and the Arts (CRCA).

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.

Taking Care of the New Aesthetic

Strangely, and somewhat unexpectedly, James Bridle unilaterally closed the New Aesthetic Tumblr blog today, 6 May 2012, announcing ‘The New Aesthetic tumblr is now closed’, with some particular and general thanks and very little information about future plans. Perhaps this was always Bridle’s intention as a private project, but one can’t help wonder if the large amount of attention, the move to a public and contested concept, and the loss of control that this entailed may have encouraged a re-assertion of control. If so, this is a great pity and perhaps even an act of vandalism.

Harpa, Iceland  (Berry 2011)

This, then, is a critical turning point, or krisis,[1] for the nascent New Aesthetic movement, and, for me, the blog closure heralds an interesting struggle over what is the New Aesthetic? Who owns or controls it? And in what directions it can now move.? Certainly, I am of the opinion that to have closed the blog in this way insinuates a certain proprietary attitude to the New Aesthetic. Considering that the Tumblr blog has largely been a crowd-sourced project, giving no explanation, allowing no debate, discussion over the closure, etc. makes it look rather like it harvested peoples’ submissions on what could have been a potentially participatory project. Whichever way it is cast, James Bridle looks rather high-handed in light of the many generous and interesting discussions that the New Aesthetic has thrown up across a variety of media.

One of the key questions will be the extent to which this blog was a central locus of, or collection for representing, the New Aesthetic more generally. Personally I found myself less interested in the Tumblr blog that became increasingly irrelevant in light of the high level of discussion found upon Imperica, The Creators Project, The Atlantic, Crumb and elsewhere. But there is clearly a need for something beyond the mere writing and rewriting of the New Aesthetic that many of the essays around the topic represented. Indeed, there is a need for an inscription or articulation of the New Aesthetic through multiple forms, both visual and written (not to mention using the sensorium more generally). I hope that we will see a thousand New Aesthetic Pinterest, Tumblr, and PinIt sites bloom across the web.

Urban Cursor is a GPS enabled object (Sebastian Campion 2009)

Nonetheless, it is disappointing to see the number of twitter commentators who have tweeted the equivalent of ‘well, that was that’, as if the single action of an individual is decisive in stifling a new and exciting way of articulating a way of being in the world. Indeed, this blog closure highlights the importance of taking care of the New Aesthetic, especially in its formative stages of development. Whilst there have been a number of dismissive and critical commentaries written about the New Aesthetic, I feel that there is a kernel of something radical and interesting happening and which still remains to be fully articulated, expressed, and made manifest in and through various mediums of expression.

The New Aesthetic blog might be dead, but the New Aesthetic as a way of conceptualising the changes in our everyday life that are made possible in and through digital technology is still unfolding. For me the New Aesthetic was not so much a collection of things as the beginning of a new kind of Archive, an Archive in Motion, which combined what Bernard Stiegler called the Anamnesis (the embodied act of memory as recollection or remembrance) and Hypomnesis (the making-technical of memory through writing, photography, machines, etc.). Stiegler writes,

We have all had the experience of misplacing a memory bearing object – a slip of paper, an annotated book, an agenda, relic or fetish, etc. We discover then that a part of ourselves (like our memory) is outside of us. This material memory, that Hegel named objective, is partial. But it constitutes the most precious part of human memory: therein, the totality of the works of spirit, in all guises and aspects, takes shape (Stiegler n.d.).

Thus, particularly in relation to the affordances given by the networked and social media within which it circulated, combined with a set of nascent practices of collection, archive and display, the New Aesthetic is distinctive in a number of ways. Firstly, it gives a description and a way of representing and mediating the world in and through the digital, that is understandable as an infinite archive (or collection). Secondly, it alternately highlights that something digital is happening in culture – and which we have only barely been conscious of – and the way in which culture is happening to the digital.  Lastly, the New Aesthetic points the direction of travel for the possibility of a Work of Art in the digital age.

In this, the New Aesthetic is something of a pharmakon, in that it is both potentially poison and cure for an age of pattern matching and pattern recognition. In as much as the archive was the set of rules governing the range of what can be verbally, audio-visually or alphanumerically expressed at all, and the database is the grounding cultural logic of software cultures, the New Aesthetic is the cultural eruption of the grammatisation of software logics into everyday life. That is, the New Aesthetic is a deictic moment which sheds light on changes in our lives that imperil things, practices, and engaging human relations, and the desire to make room for such relations, particularly when they are struggling to assert themselves against the dominance of neoliberal governance, bureaucratic structures and market logics.[2]

The New Aesthetic, in other words, brings these patterns to the surface, and in doing so articulates the unseen and little understood logic of computational society and the anxieties that this introduces.


[1] krisis: a separating, power of distinguishing, decision , choice, election, judgment, dispute.

[2] A deictic explanation is here understood as one which articulates a thing or event in its uniqueness. 


Stiegler, B. (n.d.)  Anamnesis and Hypomnesis, accessed 06/05/2012,

Abduction Aesthetic: Computationality and the New Aesthetic

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

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

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

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

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

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

CV Dazzle, Camouflage from Computer Vision (Harvey 2012)

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

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

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

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

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

Untitled (2011) David Hockney

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

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

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

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

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

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

Splinter Camouflage Scheme for Fighter Jet

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

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

Skeuomorphic calender in Mac OS X

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

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

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

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


[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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Dionysians and Apollonians: Letter from Albert Szent-Györgyi to Science (1972)

Winner of the  Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (1937) Albert Szent-Györgyi (b1893-d1986) photo taken in 1948. 

Dear Editor,

Wilhelm Ostwald (1909) divided scientists into the classical and the romantic. One could call them also systematic and intuitive. John R.Piatt (personal communication) calls them Apollonian and Dionysian. These classifications reflect extremes of two different attitudes of the mind that can be found equally in art, painting, sculpture, music, or dance. One could probably discover them in other alleys of life. In science the Apollonian tends to develop established lines to perfection, while the Dionysian rather relies on intuition and is more likely to open new, unexpected alleys for research. Nobody knows what ‘intuition’ really is. My guess is that it is a sort of subconscious reasoning, only the end result of which becomes conscious.

These are not merely academic problems. They have most important corollaries and consequences. The future of mankind depends on the progress of science, and the progress of science depends on the support it can find. Support mostly takes the form of grants, and the present methods of distributing grants unduly favor the Apollonian. Applying for a grant begins with writing a project. The Apollonian clearly sees the future lines of his research and has no difficulty writing a clear project. Not so the Dionysian, who knows only the direction in which he wants to go out into the unknown; he has no idea what he is going to find there and how he is going to find it. Defining the unknown or writing down the subconscious is a contradiction in absurdum. In his work, the Dionysian relies, to a great extent, on accidental observation. His observations are not completely ‘accidental’, because they involve not merely seeing things but also grasping their possible meaning. A great deal of conscious or subconscious thinking must precede a Dionysian’s observations. There is an old saying that a discovery is an accident finding a prepared mind. The Dionysian is often not only unable to tell what he is going to find, he may even be at a loss to tell how he made his discovery.

Being myself Dionysian, writing projects was always an agony for me, as I described not long ago in Perspectives of Biology and Medicine (Szent-Györgyi 1971). I always tried to live up to Leo Szilard’s (personal communication) commandment, ‘don’t lie if you don’t have to’. I had to. I filled up pages with words and plans I knew I would not follow.When I go home from my laboratory in the late afternoon, I often do not know what I am going to do the next day. I expect to think that up during the night. How could I tell then, what I would do a year hence? It is only lately that I can see somewhat ahead (which may be a sign of senescence) and write a realistic proposal, but the queer fact is that, while earlier all my fake projects were always accepted, since I can write down honestly what I think I will do my applications have been invariably rejected. This seems quite logical to me; sitting in an easy chair I can cook up any time a project which must seem quite attractive, clear, and logical. But if I go out into nature, into the unknown, to the fringes of knowledge, everything seems mixed up and contradictory, illogical, and incoherent. This is what research does; it smooths out contradiction and makes things simple, logical, and coherent. So when I bring reality into my projects, they become hazy and are rejected. The reviewer, feeling responsible for ‘the taxpayer’s money’, justly hesitates to give money for research, the lines of which are not clear to the applicant himself. A discovery must be, by definition, at variance with existing knowledge. During my lifetime, I made two. Both were rejected off-hand by the popes of the field. Had I predicted these discoveries in my applications, and had these authorities been my judges, it is evident what their decisions would have been. These difficulties could perhaps, be solved to some extent, by taking into account the applicant’s early work. Or, if the applicant is young and has had no chance to prove himself, the vouching of an elder researcher acquainted with the applicant’s ability may be considered. The problem is a most important one, especially now, as science grapples with one of nature’s mysteries, cancer, which may demand entirely new approaches.

Albert Szent-Györgyi (1972)


Szent-Györgyi, A. (1972) Dionysians and Apollonians. Science 176:966.

Ostwald, W. (1909) Grosse Männer. Leipzig: Akademische Verlagsgesellchaft GMBH

Black Boxes, Black Blocs and the paradigm of availability

Why is it that we think of the digital age as one pervaded by ‘black boxes’? This heuristic is widely taken as read both in terms of empirical descriptions of technology, the state, the market, everyday life today, and so forth, but also in terms of the possibility of a methodology to understand and explore it (Latour is an obvious example of this). Take, for example, a very interesting recent contribution by Alexander R. Galloway (2011):

Invisibility is not a new concept within political theory. But what I would like to explore here is a specific kind of invisibility, a specific kind of blackness that has begun to permeate cybernetic societies, and further that this blackness is not simply an effect of cybernetic societies but is in fact a necessary precondition for them… The black box: an opaque technological device for which only the inputs and outputs are known. The black bloc: a tactic of anonymization and massification often associated with the direct action wing of the left. Somehow these two things come together near the end of the twentieth century. Is there a reason for this? (Galloway 2011: 239).

Putting aside the rhetorical homology being alluded to here with its conjunction of black boxes and black blocs, and the problematic reduction of social and political actors to the functional methodology of the technical practices of the technologists – what we have is a more interesting question over the relationship between invisibility and visibility, or better, what I would call between means (invisible) and ends (visible). That is, we have a problem of orientation in postmodernity when the lodestones are themselves hidden behind an interface or surface which remains eminently readable, but completely inscrutable in its depths. We, of course, also have the complementary question raised in accepting the surface demands of a so-called radical group that attempts to remain invisible and therefore beyond the possibility of contestation to its so-called “non-demands” (a political attempt to lay claim to a technical convenience for political convenience). If the black boxing of technology is an urgent problem requiring contestation in postmodern capitalism, I suggest that the ‘black blocing’ of politics remains equally problematic and in need of opening up. On this note Galloway is decidedly ambiguous on how far the project of such a deconstruction can go:

To end, we shall not say that there is a new blackness. We shall not ratify the rise of the obscure and the fall of the transparent. But do not decry the reverse either. Simply withdraw from the decision to ask the question. Instead ask: what is this eternity? What is this black box – this black bloc – that fills the world with husks and hulls and camouflage and crime? Is it our enemy, or are we on the side of it? Is this just a new kind of nihilism? Not at all, it is the purest form of love (Galloway 2011: 249).

In the end we are left with a rather romantic conceptualisation of opaqueness as the “purest form of love”. But what this means for the project of black boxes and black blocs is left unexplained, partially, perhaps, because of sympathy with the possibility of the black bloc as representative, if not in actuality, a universal class, stretches the notion of black blocs as the site of resistance within “cybernetic society” too far. Instead I think we should make the logical move that Galloway suggests but is reluctant to pursue: that black boxes and black blocs are both symptomatic of postmodernity (what he calls “cybernetic society”) and therefore both need to be opened up and their “mechanisms” exposed for contestation and debate.

In this vein I want to explore the notion of availability in relation to this idea of surface. It is helpful here to think of the way that computationality has affordances that contribute to the possibility of availability in terms of the construction and distribution of a range of commodities. Computationality I think of as the very definition of the framework or condition of possibility for social and political life today, that is, computationality is an ontotheology (Berry 2011). Here I am thinking of a commodity as being available when it can be used as a mere end, with the means veiled and backgrounded. This is not only in technical devices, of course, and includes the very social labour and material required to produce a device as such. But in the age of computationality I think it is interesting to explore how the surface effects of a certain form of computational machinery create the conditions both for the black boxing of technology as such, but also for thinking about the possibility of political and social action against it. I will call this the paradigm of availability. Upon this surface we might read and write whatever we choose, and on the black bloc, we are also offered a surface to which we might read the inscrutable however we might wish – politics itself as consumption.

What is striking about the paradigm of availability, made possible by computationality, is that it radically re-presents the mechanisms and structures of everyday life, themselves reconstructed within the ontology afforded by computationality. This moment of re-presentation is an offering of availability, understood as infinite play and exploitability (interactivity), of a specific commodity form which we might call the computational device. Here I am thinking of the computational device both in terms of its material manifestations but also as a diagram or technical imaginary. That is it is not only restructuring the mechanisms and structures, but the very possibility of thinking against them. Here the notion of the political itself requires reconciliation within the paradigm of availability and is very suggestive in relation to the black bloc itself.

So what is to be done? First and foremost would be a clear critique of both the technical and the political moment of black-boxing. It is clear that the surface manifestation of the device, or the politics, is not enough for us to understand and critique what is, at least in terms of this theorisation, an ideological manifestation of a computational ontotheology being instantiated in a number of medial moments (technology, politics, social movements, the environment, the state). Second, we need to deconstruct this manifestation of the commodity form as ends without means, in effect an example of commodity fetishism.  Lastly, this critique implies a new form of literacy, which elsewhere I have called ‘iteracy‘, able to understand and intervene directly in the technological system we inhabit, but also to ensure that black-boxing becomes glass-boxing, and political black blocs become democratic “glass blocs”.


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

Galloway, A. R. (2011), Black Box, Black Bloc, in Nyes, B. (ed.) Communization and its Discontents: Contestation, Critique, and Contemporary Struggles, New York: Minor Compositions.

Understanding Digital Humanities Edited by David M. Berry (Palgrave Macmillan)

Should be out any day soon… 

  1. Introduction: Understanding the Digital Humanities; David M. Berry
  2. An Interpretation of Digital Humanities; L.Evans & S.Rees
  3. How We Think: Transforming Power and Digital Technologies; N. Katherine Hayles
  4. Digital Methods: Five Challenges; B.Rieder & T.Röhle 
  5. Archives in Media Theory: Material Media Archaeology and Digital Humanities; Jussi Parikka 
  6. Canonicalism and the Computational Turn; Caroline Bassett
  7. The Esthetics of Hidden Things; S.Dexter 
  8. The Meaning and the Mining of Legal Texts; M.Hildebrandt
  9. Have the Humanities Always been Digital? For an Understanding of the ‘Digital Humanities’ in the Context of Originary Technicity; F.Frabetti
  10. Present, Not Voting: Digital Humanities in the Panopticon; M.Terras
  11. Analysis Tool or Research Methodology: Is There an Epistemology for Patterns?; D.Dixon 
  12. Do Computers Dream of Cinema? Film Data for Computer Analysis and Visualization; A.Heftberger
  13. The Feminist Critique: Mapping Controversy in Wikipedia; M.Currie 
  14. How to See One Million Images? A Computational Methodology for Visual Culture and Media Research; Lev Manovich
  15. Cultures of Formalization: Towards an Encounter Between Humanities and Computing; J.van Zundert, A.Antonijevic, A.Beaulieu, K.van Dalen-Oskam, D.Zeldenrust & T.Andrews
  16. Trans-disciplinarity and Digital Humanity: Lessons Learned from Developing Text Mining Tools for Textual Analysis; Y.Lin


The Gigantic

We now live in a world where the very size of the real-time stream begins to exceed capacities to understand or make any sense of the sheer flow of data, and Twitter which currently handles 250 million tweets per day, or 1.25 billion per week, is a great example of this (Totsis 2011). Ways of thinking about the real-time stream as a totality are needed to help think through the implications of this data rich world and provide a contribution towards a cognitive map. For this reason I think that Heidegger’s notion of the concept of the ‘gigantic’ that he introduces in Contributions to Philosophy (From Enowning) might prove to be useful. For Heidegger, the gigantic represents a new moment whereby the very impossibility of understanding the extremeness of small and large sizes as calculability becomes itself a change in quality. As he argues in ‘The Age of the World Picture’:

A sign of this event is that everywhere and in the most varied forms and disguises the gigantic is making its appearance. In so doing, it evidences itself simultaneously in the tendency toward the increasingly small. We have only to think of numbers in atomic physics. The gigantic presses forward in a form that actually seems to make it disappear – in the annihilation of great distances by the airplane, in the setting before us of foreign and remote worlds in their everydayness, which is produced at random through radio by a flick of the hand. Yet we think too superficially if we suppose that the gigantic is only the endlessly extended emptiness of the purely quantitative. We think too little if we find that the gigantic, in the form of continual not-ever-having-been-here-yet, originates only in a blind mania for exaggerating and excelling (Appendix 12) (Heidegger 1977: 135).

And as Livingston (2003) further explains:

At first, the ‘gigantic’ simply means the unlimited processes of quantification and assumptions of quantifiability that make possible modern technological means of expression and control. But when understood in a broader historical perspective, the ground of the ‘gigantic’ is not just the absence of limits on the process of quantification, but a fundamental aspect or feature of quantity itself (Livingston 2003: 332-333).

Here the gigantic is understood as the very possibility of quality being derivational from quantity itself. Thus the kinds of quantitative possibilities for human existence are measured, calculated, listed, captured, pure data itself as being:

But as soon as machination is in turn grasped being-historically, the gigantic reveals itself as ‘something’ else. It is no longer the re-presentable objectness of an unlimited quantification but rather quantity as quality. Quality is meant here as the basic character of the quale, of the what, of the ownmost, of be-ing itself (Heidegger 1999: 94).

The gigantic then becomes the mark of the age of the real-time stream inasmuch as the gigantic becomes the ‘greatness’ of this moment. We therefore increasingly use this notion of gigantism as a means of assessing the very importance of things within our everyday experience, not, that is, that the specific value itself has any particular or important meaning, but rather that the sheer impossibility of conceiving of the number (whether large or small) becomes a kind of sublime of unrepresentability. A mere mood or feeling that is associated with the gigantic then becomes something that we routinely consider to be a way to understand meaningful difference.

The gigantic is rather that through which the quantitative becomes a special quality and thus a remarkable kind of greatness. Each historical age is not only great in a distinctive way in contrast to others; it also has, in each instance, its own concept of greatness. But as soon as the gigantic in planning and calculating and adjusting and making secure shifts over out of the quantitative and becomes a special quality, then what is gigantic, and what can seemingly always be calculated completely, becomes, precisely through this, incalculable. This becoming incalculable remains the invisible shadow that is cast around all things everywhere when man has been transformed into subiectum and the world into picture (Appendix 13) (Heidegger 1977: 135).

Heidegger helpfully lists the forms of the gigantic:

1. The gigantism of the slowing down of history (from the staying away of essential decisions all the way to lack of history) in the semblance of speed and steer ability of “historical” [historisch] development and its anticipation.

2. The gigantism of the publicness as summation of everything homogeneous in favour of concealing the destruction and undermining of any passion for essential gathering.

3. The gigantism of the claim to naturalness in the semblance of what is self-evident and “logical”; the question-worthiness of being is placed totally outside questioning.

4. The gigantism of the diminution of beings in the whole in favour of the semblance of boundless extending of the same by virtue of unconditioned controllability. The single thing that is impossible is the word and representation of “impossible” (Heidegger 1999: 311).

Thus that we live in a flow of real-time information that exceeds our capacities to understand or follow it – for example when we have followed enough people such that our stream in Twitter is too fast to parse – is the kind of affect that I think the notion of the gigantic points towards. This is not a feeling of being overwhelmed or being in a situation of losing control, rather it is a feeling of pure will-to-power, as it were, experiencing the gigantic as a manifestation of yourself. Equally, the flows of data both into and out of your life then become a marker of your gigantism, the subjectivity of the stream is constituted by the flow of data through which a moment of curation take place, but a curation of gigantism, not a reduction as such, but a wholeness or comprehensiveness of coverage. Each of us then becomes our own gigantic in as much as we increasingly generate data flows into and out of the networks of social life mediated through software and code.

In the culture of the modern subject who would master the world according to the logic of representation and through the technologies grounded in such a logic, which seem to overcome the very limits of space and time, the mystery of transcendence can indeed seem to “appear” only through its sheer absence.  Such a culture, then, would appear to be a culture of absolute immanence or even “total presence,” a culture de-mystified by a subject who, most notably in the technologies of all-consuming light and image, seems to comprehend all (Carlson 2003).

This is a total presence in the real-time stream, presented through such real-time streaming technologies as Twitter, Facebook (especially through their Ticker), the Jawbone Up, and the concept of frictionless sharing that Facebook has advocated (MacMannus 2011). This is a world in which the sheer gigantic incalculability of the calculable becomes an experience beyond the mere technical process or possibility of data collection, transmission, and transformation. Indeed, it becomes the very moment when one is caught within the mystery of the sheer unrepresentability, or perhaps better, comprehensibility of our own streams of data generated and flowing through these new forms of social network. Made manifest, perhaps though digital technology, but also pointing towards the other unencoded that remains outside of these networks, as plasma or the region, and from which this data is drawn.

But Heidegger offers the suggestion that within the gigantic there is opened a shadow in the form of a moment of possible transcendentalism, perhaps even a new form of sacred, that points to the possible reconfiguration of previous marginal practices or a reconfiguration of things. This, I want to suggest, opens up new possibilities for a human subjectivity that can undertake the practices of listening and harkening to that which lies behind the rushing sound of the real-time streams and their shadows.

By means of this shadow the modern world extends itself out into a space withdrawn from representation, and so lends to the incalculable the determinateness peculiar to it, as well as a historical uniqueness. This shadow, however, points to something else, which it is denied to us of today to know. But man will never be able to experience and ponder this that is denied so long as he dawdles about in the mere negating of the age. The flight into tradition, out of a combination of humility and presumption, can bring about nothing in itself other than self-deception and blindness in relation to the historical moment… Man will know, i.e., carefully safeguard into its truth, that which is incalculable, only in creative questioning and shaping out of the power of genuine reflection. Reflection transports the man of the future into that “between” in which he belongs to Being but remains a stranger amid that which is (Heidegger 1977: 136).






Carlson, T. (2003) Locating the Mystical Subject, in Kessler, M. and Sheppard, C. (eds.) Mystics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, accessed 02/12/2011,


Heidegger, M. (1977 [1938]) The Age of the World Picture, in The Question Concerning Technology and other Essays, New York: Harper Perennial, pp115-154.


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


Livingston, P. (2003) Thinking and Being: Heidegger and Wittgenstein on Machination and Lived-Experience, Inquiry, 46, 324–345.


MacManus, R. (2011) The Pros &amp; Cons of Frictionless Sharing, ReadWriteWeb, accessed 02/12/2011,


Totsis, A. (2011) Twitter Is At 250 Million Tweets Per Day, iOS 5 Integration Made Signups Increase 3x, TechCrunch, accessed 02/12/2011,

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