ponedjeljak, 26. studenoga 2012.

James Bridle & The New Aesthetic

New Aesthetic, New Anxieties

Nova estetika je pojam koji je skovao umjetnik, dizajner i pisac James Bridle a odnosi se na sve veći prodor svega digitalnog u svakodnevni, fizički život i na njihovo postupno stapanje. Pikseli postaju nova ontologija. Nova estetika je i umjetnički pokret koji potiče ljudsku suradnju s digitalnim strojevima.
Priči je puno je pomogao Bruce Sterling svojim člankom objavljenim u Wiredu. Nakon toga uslijedilo je poveće teorijsko i umjetničko komešanje.



The New Aesthetic is a term used to refer to the increasing appearance of the visual language of digital technology and the Internet in the physical world, and the blending of virtual and physical. The phenomenon has been around for a long time but lately James Bridle and partners have surfaced the notion through a series of talks and observations. The term gained wider attention following a panel at the SXSW conference in 2012.
The New Aesthetic is a nascent art movement or collective that is documenting "eruption of the digital"  and "revels in seeing the grain of computation". Developing from a series of collections of digital objects that have become located in the physical the movement circulates around a blog named "The New Aesthetic" and which has defined the broad contours of the movement without a manifesto . The New Aesthetic as a concept was introduced at South By South West (SXSW) on March 12th 2012, at a panel organised by James Bridle and included Aaron Cope, Ben Terrett, Joanne McNeil, and Russell Davies . What really propelled the ideas around the New Aesthetic into critical and public consciousness was an article written by Bruce Sterling in Wired Magazine, and which both described the main outlines but also proposed some key critical areas for development. The response from across the web has been rapid and engaged with a number of significant contributions already having been made
The author Bruce Sterling has said of the New Aesthetic:
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.
Matthew Battles, a contributor to Metalab, a project of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, gives a definition that makes reference to purported paradigm examples:
New Aesthetic is a collaborative attempt to draw a circle around several species of aesthetic activity—including but not limited to drone photography, ubiquitous surveillance, glitch imagery, Streetview photography, 8-bit net nostalgia. Central to the New Aesthetic is a sense that we’re learning to “wave at machines”—and that perhaps in their glitchy, buzzy, algorithmic ways, they’re beginning to wave back in earnest.
One of the more substantive contributions to the notion of the New Aesthetic has been through a development of, and linking to, the way in which the digital and the everyday are increasingly interpenetrating each other. Here, the notion of the unrepresentability of computation, as both an infrastructure and an ecology, are significant in understanding the common New Aesthetic tendency towards pixelated graphics and a retro 8-bit form. This is related to the idea of an episteme (or ontotheology) identified with relation to computation and computational ways of seeing and doing: computationality.
One movement that draws parallels to "New Aesthetic" is "Seapunk". - wikipedia

 The New Aesthetic by James Bridle et al.

 via mattlodder

Central site: new-aesthetic.tumblr.com; James Bridle on the New Aesthetic: riglondon.com/blog/2011/05/06/the-new-aesthetic; Bruce Sterling on the New Aesthetic: wired.com/beyond_the_beyond/2012/04/an-essay-on-the-new-aesthetic; Responses to Sterling, defenses of Bridle: thecreatorsproject.com/blog/in-response-to-bruce-sterlings-essay-on-the-new-aesthetic; Also created by Bridle: a seven-thousand-page book of all the changes to the Wikipedia entry “Iraq War,” “Robot André Breton,” a semi-pornographic parody of the IKEA catalog; Other artists represented in the New Aesthetic: Nicolas Nova, Jonathan Rennie, Adam Harvey, many pseudonymous Flickr contributors, 3-D printers, and Louis Vuitton; Non-image content encompassed by the New Aesthetic: collated news articles, robotically altered text, essays, Twitter feeds, videos

As fascinating as its name is bland, “the New Aesthetic” refers to a website launched in 2011 by the London-based artist, designer, and writer James Bridle; to the many images archived on that site; to Bridle’s argument about the sensibility that those images share; to the international panoply of pictures, websites, texts, and computer programs created in response; and to a heated debate about what they mean. The New Aesthetic instructs us to look to the future, but it might be most interesting for what it says about the recent past.
Put too simply, the New Aesthetic is an art movement, or an attempt to launch one, that welcomes human collaborations with real or imagined digital machines. The earliest pictures on Bridle’s site were either real objects that looked like crude programmed creations, or digital images whose oddball features put their difference from “real life” up front. Coarse green squares in an arid, tan landscape looked like early-’80s Atari graphics but were really “agricultural land seen from space.” A pendulous, blue-on-blue column of LEGO-like blocks, representing water, “poured” out from a New York City pipe. Later works included imaginary buildings shaped like QR codes, an essay about Auto-Tune, and much reuse of Google Street View.
In such vistas, to use Bridle’s words, “representations of people and of technology begin to break down… at the pixels.” We are already cyborgs, these images say, and we should know it; digital vision and computer-assisted perception have become so normal that we need new art to show how weird they can be.
Proponents cast the movement as anti-nostalgic, opposed to the idea that we are fake or artificial or compromised now but were real or organic or natural—and therefore more interesting or sympathetic—back then. Au contraire, the New Aesthetic says: we are as real as we have ever been, even though for us the real, the visible, the everyday involve so many algorithms and so many machines. Bridle says he wants to attack “the belief that authenticity can only be located in the past.”
And yet New Aesthetic images and attitudes also point to that past. Those blocky grid breakdowns, those crude maps and repurposed texts, invoke the 1980s and 1990s; once, these were the best computers could do, and it’s their very obsolescence that lets us register them as other than useful: as “aesthetic,” or as beautiful. With its eight-bit graphics, its cut-up grid patterns, its screens within screens within screens, the New Aesthetic reminds us that we have had computers and computer graphics, CGI and CAD, spy cams and Photoshop, for years. They have changed along with us; the digital, these works say, has its own history.
It’s easy to make the New Aesthetic political, seizing the high-tech means back from corporate overlords—Bridle’s initial site included a Google Maps image of the compound where Osama bin Laden died, along with dresses based on “dazzle camouflage” from military ships and planes. (The movement’s origin in London, perhaps the world’s most surveilled city, is no accident.) But as a collection of images, and as instructions for making more, the New Aesthetic isn’t just a scramble-the-system protest, nor is it a claim about what watches whom. It’s more like a claim about how we watch, a claim not just that we are already data, acclimated to and dependent on our machines, but that we have been so for a while. No wonder its finest examples look at once startling, “dazzling,” and somehow not quite new. Stephen Burt

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. BerryMichel van DartelMichael DieterMichelle KasprzakNat MullerRachel 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.

The blog of James Bridle: literature, technology and book futurism, since 2006.:

Top articles:


I’d always intended to talk about The New Aesthetic, but up until about the day before I didn’t really know how. The original title of the talk was “The Robot-Readable World”, but this didn’t really sit right with me; it’s one aspect of NA, for sure, but there was something else I wanted to emphasise: the human aspects and emotions of NA, and the becoming-human of the machines.
So the talk became “Waving at the machines”, a 50-minute, 120-slide vector through the idea, an idea that still seems massive and nebulous, but which it is possible to fire a laser through and illuminate some motes. I’m not sure I managed to phrase the camouflage stuff quite right, and the need for an ending always feels like a cop-out, but nevertheless, I cover many of the bases. (Web Directions have also transcribed the entire talk, should you be so crazy as to attempt to read it.)
For those of you who haven’t come across the New Aesthetic before, it began here, it continues here, I’ve been interviewed about it here, and here are a few responses.
The adventure continues; Kevin Slavin, Aaron Straup Cope, Ben Terrett, Joanne McNeil, and myself will be interrogating the concept at SXSW next year, and no doubt it will be covered elsewhere before then.
Huge thanks to everyone at Web Directions, particularly to Maxine Sherrin for all her help and patience, to Hunting With Pixels for the video, and to everyone who attended.

Recent posts from the blog:

New Aesthetic

The New Aesthetic is an ongoing research project by James Bridle.

Since May 2011 I have been collecting material which points towards new ways of seeing the world, an echo of the society, technology, politics and people that co-produce them.
The New Aesthetic is not a movement, it is not a thing which can be done. It is a series of artefacts of the heterogeneous network, which recognises differences, the gaps in our overlapping but distant realities.

It began here: www.riglondon.com/blog/2011/05/06/the-new-aesthetic/

Here is a talk (video) about the visual aspects of the New Aesthetic (here is a transcript).
Here is another talk (video) about the New Aesthetic, concerning literature, sexuality, and collaborating with the network.
Reports of a panel on the New Aesthetic at SXSW.

James Bridle — Waving at the Machines

transcript   http://www.webdirections.org/resources/james-bridle-waving-at-the-machines/

http://rorschmap.com/   http://robotflaneur.com/

The New Aesthetic

For a while now, I’ve been collecting images and things that seem to approach a new aesthetic of the future, which sounds more portentous than I mean. What I mean is that we’ve got frustrated with the NASA extropianism space-future, the failure of jetpacks, and we need to see the technologies we actually have with a new wonder. Consider this a mood-board for unknown products.
(Some of these things might have appeared here, or nearby, before. They are not necessarily new new, but I want to put them together.)
For so long we’ve stared up at space in wonder, but with cheap satellite imagery and cameras on kites and RC helicopters, we’re looking at the ground with new eyes, to see structures and infrastructures:

Guardian gallery of agricultural landscapes from space.

Updates on Bin Laden’s Death, New York Times

Tracking iPhone locations with iPhoneTracker, from Ben on Flickr
The map fragments, visible at different resolutions, accepting of differing hierarchies of objects.

→ Tracking iPhone locations (Ongoing personal project)

→ Landscape Permutation 2 (2010), David Semeniuk
Views of the landscape are superimposed on one another. Time itself dilates.

→ Three screens (for London 2010)

→ FER IN 1970 & 2010, Buenos Aires, Back to the Future Series, Irina Werning

Luminant Point Arrays, by Stephan Tillmans
Representations of people and of technology begin to break down, to come apart not at the seams, but at the pixels.

Diptych 1 on Flickr (ongoing personal project)

CV Dazzle by Adam Harvey

Megabytes of Spring, Reed+Rader for vmagazine.com.
(I could put a whole load more animated gif stuff in here like this and this and this and this. But I won’t. Except to say: animated gifs are the first artform of the internet, and they are in some way the future.)

→ German Tornado fighter with splinter camouflage.

→ Low resolution Lamborghini Countach, by United Nude

Lo Res Shoe, by United Nude

Fabricate Yourself, Karl D.D. Lewis

Telehouse West, by YRM Architects
The rough, pixelated, low-resolution edges of the screen are becoming in the world.

→ Robert Hodgin’s Kinect Fatsuit

NYC Street Art, photographed by Benjamin Norman


Embryo Firearms by Cornelia Parker
→→→→→→→→→→ And so on and so forth.
UPDATE: continuing the exploration at new-aesthetic.tumblr.com – submissions welcome.


March 15, 2012
Report from Austin, Texas, on the New Aesthetic panel at SXSW.

At SXSW this year, I asked four people to comment on the New Aesthetic, which if you don’t know is an investigation / project / tumblr looking at technologically-enabled novelty in the world.
(Previously: the original blog post, the main tumblr, my talk at Web Directions South.)
I opened the panel by talking about the origins of NA, in a frustration at retro-ness (the belief that authenticity can only be located in the past)—best encapsulated by Russell’s post here:
Every hep shop seems to be full of tweeds and leather and carefully authentic bits of restrained artisinal fashion. I think most of Shoreditch would be wondering around in a leather apron if it could. With pipe and beard and rickets. Every new coffee shop and organic foodery seems to be the same. Wood, brushed metal, bits of knackered toys on shelves. And blackboards. Everywhere there’s blackboards.
—as well as a real sense that there were new and extraordinary things and experiences in the world, like the ability to see through satellites, which we should wonder at and explore, but instead reduce to the mundane, like GPS driving directions…
One of the core themes of the New Aesthetic has been our collaboration with technology, whether that’s bots, digital cameras or satellites (and whether that collaboration is conscious or unconscious), and a useful visual shorthand for that collaboration has been glitchy and pixelated imagery, a way of seeing that seems to reveal a blurring between “the real” and “the digital”, the physical and the virtual, the human and the machine. It should also be clear that this ‘look’ is a metaphor for understanding and communicating the experience of a world in which the New Aesthetic is increasingly pervasive.

What has been brilliant about the New Aesthetic for me, personally, is that it has produced work, it has made me see and think about the world in a strange way, out of which thinking strange things have fallen, like Rorschmap and Robot Flaneur and Balloon Drones and Shadows, of which more anon.
But what has also been brilliant is that other people have pitched in. I first realised that NA was “a thing” not in that first blog post (I would have given it a better name) but when people started responding and writing about it. They started coming to me, bringing things, and saying “is this New Aesthetic?” or even “I think this is New Aesthetic” and I’d go yes, possibly, or better, why do you think that?
Names have power (I showed a slide of Aleister Crowley at this point; hell, I’ll show it again—).

—giving something a name gives you power over it, but it also gives other people power too. Other people can pick up your tool and use it. (Sidenote, which we’ll return to: I’ve always loved this aspect of language. It’s at the core of the invisible book club, and the best example of it I’ve experienced lately is China Miéville’s “The City & The City” which yes I am still banging on about because it gives you new words—breeching, cross-hatching—for things you know but can’t describe and which you can use as keys to open the world in all its Sapir-Whorfian glory).
Anyway, the point about the brilliance of NA as a shareable concept is that other people respond, and I wanted to show that at SXSW by inviting four people—friends old and new—to respond as they saw fit, which might be any way at all. And they did, and you should read what they had to say (follow the links to their sites):
They are all smart and good and you should go and read them now. (You are missing the title cards and the jingles, but I guess you had to be there for that. Also the drone. Later, we took it swimming.)
I came back on at the end to tell a few stories from the New Aesthetic. It was somewhat incoherent, in the way that talks are allowed to be but essays less so, but I shall try to lay it out.
I went to CERN, and one of the many great things about it is that people are doing things there in order to understand what they are doing, and it’s this vast iterative process with no definite outcome, but we do it because, perhaps, this is what we do when we encounter new things; we cannot do otherwise. We must stare at them ever longer and harder to understand what they mean.

Like this building and this photograph. The first is Telehouse’s new datacenter in East London which I have spoken about many times : why is it pixelated? Is it an attempt to render the network, the digital, visible? What form does the architecture of the network take, and what is the significance of the network’s irruption into physical space? (See also.)
What is the extraordinary interweaving of events that must occur for this image to exist? (It is the Free Bradley Manning section of San Francisco Pride). How many networks have been traversed by ideas and images and people for this thing to happen and be seen? And what Julian Assange said [PDF]: “We must think beyond those who have gone before us, and discover technological changes that embolden us with ways to act in which our forebears could not.” If we have not found what we are looking for yet, what we are looking for must be found in the new.

And what of the render ghosts, those friends who live in our unbuilt spaces, the first harbingers of our collective future? How do we understand and befriend them, so that we may shape the future not as passive actors but as collaborators? (I don’t have much truck with the “don’t complain, build” / “make stuff or shut up” school, but I do believe in informed consent.)
Because a line has been crossed, technology/software/code is in and of the world and there’s no getting out of it. Some architects can look at a building and tell you which version of autodesk was used to create it. The world is defined by our visualisations of it. (Someone who makes such things told me: what they put in, even as place-holders, always ends up getting built. Lorem Ipsum architecture.)

People are writing stories about having sex with robots on the internet—turning all of literature and technology into creativity and amusement while simultaneously undermining all previous notions of authorial authority and intellectual property. (I was talking about slashfic and possibly starpunk too.)
People are “acting” in ways we may or may not understand, which may or may not have an effect in the real world, whether it’s signing petitions, organising riots (on BBM), clicking, ‘liking’ KONY, whatever, the correct (maybe) response is not to have an opinion (default internet response, still) or a moral position, but to live inside the thing as it unfolds.
I think at this point I might have quoted Kafka and then gone on a rant about how brilliant Tumblr is:
You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.

I said that we need to invent new words for everything, preferably/not really Long German ones, because we are experiencing genuinely new things, and we should not shy away from that fact. Yes, everything has always been new and different and everything has always been the same, but we can perform an end-run around this endless back-and-forth between contemporary boosterism and conservative ever-wasness by getting excited about the fact that new ways of seeing (/thinking) produce if not a new world then new sensations which are the medium by which we appreciate a new world (and for that tug at your heart, that drop in your stomach, when you see a distant place through the internet and a number of devices (including your friends drinking in a distant city in real-time on Twitter) and wish you were there I coin the term Strasseblickfernweh, or Street View wanderlust.)
I wrote this rant a while back on Flickr, about, essentially, the uneven distribution of exciting futures (there was something in the air last summer / there is always something in the air if you’re facing the right way)…

And Tom said:
It’s 2011, and I have no idea what anything is or does anymore.
At CERN, there was a video where a particle physicist was asked “What if you don’t find the Higgs Boson? What if you’re wrong about this?” and he thought that would be brilliant, because then they’d know a whole area they could block out and go OK, not this, but how about this?
Also, what Rilke said:
Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.
Which must be true because Rilke said it (what would you bring down from the mountain?).
My point is, all our metaphors are broken. The network is not a space (notional, cyber or otherwise) and it’s not time (while it is embedded in it at an odd angle) it is some other kind of dimension entirely.
BUT meaning is emergent in the network, it is the apophatic silence at the heart of everything, that-which-can-be-pointed-to. And that is what the New Aesthetic, in part, is an attempt to do, maybe, possibly, contingently, to point at these things and go but what does it mean?

There’s a round-up of tweets from the session here (thanks to Paul), as well as a bunch from Bruce Sterling’s SXSW closing keynote (thanks to Chris), when he declared the NA to be at least one kind of future. He also wrote it up for Wired.
Thanks very much to Joanne, Ben, Aaron and Russell for agreeing to and indeed taking part in this ongoing discussion (do read their blog posts), also to Chris and George for moral support, and to everyone who came. All will continue, no doubt, here and at the NA.

Report from the New Aesthetic: The Movement Rolls On, Inward

"Collapsed Building, NYC - 3D," by STML. Photo courtesy of new-aesthetic.tumblr.com.
Most AFC readers have probably heard some of the responses by now to this year’s South by Southwest panel “Seeing Like Digital Devices” in which British technologist James Bridle presented his New Aesthetic project. For the past year, Bridle has been compiling a Tumblr of images, mainly of satellite photos and colorful design objects which look like they’ve been run through a computer (have obvious pixels), alongside emerging trends which humanize robots. Together, things like pixelated camouflage and Transformer porn cartoons illustrate an android’s vision of the world.
The New Aesthetic took off soon after, thanks to a response essay to that panel by respected tech writer Bruce Sterling, hailing it as the new avant-garde. His case for the New Aesthetic as a legit movement was helped by the fact that Bridle’s fellow panelists included a bevy of art-tech public intellectuals: Rhizome Senior Editor Joanne McNeil, Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum Senior Engineer Aaron Straup Cope, Wired UK Contributing Editor Russell Davies, and the UK Government Digital Service’s Head of Design Ben Terrett.
Sterling’s essay provoked months of more response essays, and responses to those responses. On average, the New Aesthetic seems to get more of a rise from technologists, less with artists, and least with art writers. Critics mostly agree that something’s happening, but feel that the New Aesthetic doesn’t ask the hard questions (Gannis, Chayka, Zigelbaum and Marcelo Coelho). It needs to get weirder; it needs to move past shared images; it needs to go native; it needs focus. Art writers in particular knocked its remarkably short memory. The arts community seemed nonplussed by the idea of creating a new worldview based on a collection of images. As tech-minded artists like Jamie Zigelbaum and Marcelo Coelho and Carla Gannis have pointed out, art already does that.
After a few months’ lull in the dialogue, Rhizome’s Joanne McNeil arranged another panel at the New Museum called “Stories from the New Aesthetic”. Its makeup showed how much the ongoing public discussion has impacted the project: all three speakers were on the previous talk, at SXSW. Tickets were sold out for a largely student-aged audience. “Artists are starting to make things that look like the Internet,” I heard one someone explain behind me, thus providing my only primer (the handful of people I met afterwards hadn’t heard much more than that). Like Bridle’s essay earlier this year, panelists wandered through the garden of the Internet, cherry-picking what fit the theory; the discussion felt similar to the tailoring of a Tumblr or Pinterest experience. As such, they all looked and sounded the same. Artists were rarely mentioned, but there were a lot of Streetview screenshots.
Aaron Straup Cope (whose full talk you can read here) loosely structured his presentation around the idea that programming reveals something about our own motives. Self-driving cars would have to be preventatively-programmed, for instance, while Siri leaves room for the illusion of new interactions. Looking through technology opens up our view of the world, he argued, pointing to how Instagram filters compel people to post more photos.
But then he extended the idea that we’re just barely keeping on top of technological advancement with the implication that robots can actually see:
There is a larger question of whether our willingness to allow the robots to act of their own accord on [looking for patterns] constitutes de facto seeing but, by and large, we continue to actively side-step that question.
But Cope didn’t have any proof of artificial intelligence, beyond the existence of drones— apparently, self-evident because they appear to drive themselves. As new media documentarian Jonathan Minard, among others, has pointed out, the New Aesthetic’s intrigue hinges on imagining that you’re seeing these images through the sentient eyes and mind of a robot, as though the webcam is looking back. When recalibrated as the human images which these are, we just end up with far more shitty photos and less privacy.

Image for Dora Moutot's "Webcam Tears" project. Photo courtesy of webcamtears.tumblr.com
Joanne McNeil (full talk here) described the psychic space created by machines, as revealed in things she did on the Internet, like posting a photo of a jellyfish as a location on Instagram, or fantasy images that are a result of computer programs, like a realistic rendering of a seemingly infinite bookshelf. McNeil mentioned projects like Dora Moutot’s “Webcam Tears” and Clement Valla’s collection of Google Earth glitches (also part of the current show “Collect the WWWorld” at 319 Scholes), but they were treated as vessels to look at Internet trends, rather than intentional creative acts. Like Cope, she flipped between slides of what the camera sees (Google Street View interiors) and dead-on images of the lens: again, literally assigning the camera a personality.
McNeil held no reservations about her motive to promote the project, concluding: “It’s not radical to point out that the digital and the physical co-exist and that they’re layered upon each other, but it is still unusual, and it’s something that we’re experiencing right now….and it’s why I think the New Aesthetic project is quite valuable.” But if we’re going to declare Bridle’s project as significant as the change it documents, then the same could be said of any number of documentary projects—people who are collecting Occupy Wall Street photos, for one. That’s wishful thinking—people rarely get what they deserve in the art world—but you can expect people to deliver. McNeil’s in the business of promoting artists.
New Aesthetic founder James Bridle then seized the stage: wildly gesticulating, he poured forth a double-time of storytelling and slides, interjecting things like “and yet, and yet, and yet!” I get now why Bruce Sterling described the New Aesthetic as being in its “evangelical, podium-pounding phase.”
It’s important to note that, since the SXSW panel, Bridle has been making less of a logical observation than a visceral appeal. He thinks of a Kafka quote in terms of Tumblr:
You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.
You can experience an elite revolution, in other words, without doing anything. The New Aesthetic promises a Whitman-esque romp into the endless scroll, over the pop fetishization of the pre-computer age.
That zeal came through in the sermon. He started out by lecturing us on what he sees as a widespread reluctance to embrace the inevitable. “Nobody talked about the smell of the book until people started worrying about e-books,” he said.
…even though those things were completely irrelevant, but we had nowhere else to put our fears about what actually might happen…that we identified the cultural importance of literature so closely with a physical object that we could only tie it to its physicality.
He told us that, when it comes to books, what people really care about is: the ability to discuss them, to keep your place, a sense of ownership, and the souvenir of your experience with them. E-books, according to Bridle, “haven’t quite figured that out yet.”
But herein lies the problem with the entire panel: no matter how robotic we’re striving to be, market research doesn’t substitute for human experience. Maybe it doesn’t make as much sense to own a physical copy of Fifty Shades of Grey, but the act of reading an e-book is more than gleaning necessary information from row after row of code. Like any object, the book can also be a gift, an heirloom, an antique, a physical record of someone’s life. All that physicality is inconveniently sentimental.
E-books were just one example of how we’d better get with the program before technology eclipses us. Here, Bridle told us about code/spaces: a name professors and co-authors Rob Kitchin and Martin Dodge gave to physical locations like airport waiting rooms or the Amazon warehouse that are organized by software, without which, they become totally useless. But should the power shut off as it did a few weeks ago, I still managed to find the temporary subway shuttle without my phone; I asked someone.

One of Clement Valla's "Postcards from Google Earth" (Photo courtesy of clementvalla.com)
Then another slideshow of New Aesthetic-y stuff. Bridle mentioned Clement Valla, who he’s a “huge fan of,” possibly because Valla’s collecting map glitches, which Bridle half-jokingly described as “one of the largest New Aesthetic artworks ever.” Ha, ha. He’s recently filed Sandy images under that moniker, as well. “It doesn’t matter that most of these things are banal. That’s kind of the point,” he told us. Computer systems are so ingrained in our way of seeing the work that the point is to examine how we’re looking, not the actual products of looking. It was the only statement he made that night that showed signs of even searching for revelation, let alone finding one.
But even that is more of an observation than a takeaway. As artist and digital media professor Carla Gannis wrote of the New Aesthetic back in May, “A movement cannot merely catalogue what currently exists, it is defined by the future(s) it envisions.”
That future materialized in one of Bridle’s more memorable quotes: “Opinions are non-contemporary.” That’s a funny idea to table amongst a panel of speakers who all happened to share one, very strong opinion. Nobody’s changing their mind about what they like; Bridle’s vision seems to diminish empathy more than anything else. Luckily, we were all spared the Q&A, as rows of the audience stood up and walked out as soon as the lights went up.

Seven posts about the future

Late March, 2011, and a lot has been building up. Too much yammering, not enough hammering. So, in an attempt to clear the decks, a braindump.
These seven posts are mostly culled from the last year of notebooks, of the commonplace book. They may be conceptually linked, but only in my head. They may employ strategic and/or naive misunderstandings. They may be confused.
Still: we write.
  1. Hauntological Futures
  2. Starpunk
  3. Stop Lying About What You Do
  4. An Elixir of Reminding
  5. The House of Wisdom
  6. #wikileakspaper
  7. The Author of Everything

Hauntological Futures

March 20, 2011
This post is the first of seven posts about the future. Caveat lector.

“Hauntology is a coming to terms with the permanence of our (dis)possession, the inevitability of dyschronia.
“I repeat, I re-cite: hauntology is the closest thing we have to a movement, a zeitgeist, at the moment (and one of the uncanniest aspects of it is the fact that there seem to be very few lines of explicit influence among the artists involved).”
—Mark Fisher (k-punk)
Hauntology, already old, is about six months away from becoming the title of a column in a Sunday supplement magazine; of going the way of psychogeography. The two have much in common: one concerns expeditions in space, the other in time. (“Kant thought that space was the form of our outer experience, and time the form of our inner experience”—Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia.)
Both are also easily misunderstood, oversimplified, and recuperated. Before that happens, we might as well attempt to wring something useful out of it. It’s been knocking around the music/philosophy blogs for a while, so it’s probably time to think about it in the literature space.
Hauntology in one sense is a term for a certain strand of music, characterised by the sampling or emulation of old times and old effects: childrens’ TV themes and the BBC radiophonic workshop, Oliver Postgate and 90s rave. That glib recitation is another waymark on the road to recuperation, but. Read more, and more widely.
Hauntology is also a network effect engendered by the increasing apparent* flattening of history and time. The network, fragmented and unevenly distributed, induces a growing sense that alternative worlds are very close indeed.
( * The internet only appears to be flat, as we perceive it in two dimensions. In fact, the knowledge it embodies, because it is tied to and instantiated in time, is ever receding from us, darkening and thickening and coming apart, becoming harder to reach and harder to find. The past is intractable but loosened, suffering our gaze upon it and our endless reinterpretations of it.)
As such, it is amenable to the same critical apparatus as Network Realism: indeed, it may be a part of the same thing.
“Ghost Box and, in particular, Belbury Poly are not inspired by the hackneyed futurism that pulsed through earlier electronic music. Their interest lies in lost worlds and an England imagined as Arcadia, in tracks such as Pan’s Garden, which sounds, thrillingly, like morris-dance music made with synths.”
- The Times
(“Hackneyed futurism” is key here: the future we were promised, of living in space, of jetpacks and pellet foods, is simply not going to happen. And while we reject the macho dark survivalist future of envirotechnological collapse, we also must give up the NASA-Concorde extopia we have been pining for forever: these are the futures of an extinguished past, a worldline that didn’t work out, a dead end.)
While I understand the distinction between nostalgia and hauntology, I am unconvinced by their separation in the application of the latter to music. The two most frequently cited sonic hauntologists are Burial and Ghost Box records, and while I’m a huge fan of both, I also see them as being steeped in nostalgia.
I am so bored of nostalgia. Of letterpress and braces and elaborate facial hair. I appreciate these things, but I think there’s something wrong with a culture that fetishises them to the extent that we currently do.
As if authenticity is only to be found in the past. I think we are frightened and I think we are distrustful and we are worried that things are slipping away. (This is something I am going to address separately.)
What would a hauntological literature look like? I’m not sure, and that makes me suspicious. The two things that come to mind are Borges (surprise!) and starpunk, which I’m also going to write about separately.
Much hauntology fails because it continues to assert a backwards/forwards model of time, a resurrection of an imagined past which is still too drenched in pure nostalgia to serve any revolutionary purpose.
Hauntology feels like a symptom of future shock, a reaction. Caisson disease: a form of the bends brought on by too rapid changes of pressure when moving between the different levels (pressurised chambers) of the caissons used in building bridges. A symptom of the unevenly-distributed future, the isobars of our ever-shifting and expanding culture.
Another test of hauntology is how it stands up to other reactions to present conditions. Bill Drummond’s The17 project is an attempt to reimagine music, its genesis in a rejection of the past. (The book.)
He imposes a restriction: “only listen to music written, recorded or released in the previous twelve months by composers, soloists or ensembles who have never released music in any format at any time previous to the last twelve months.”
But, Bill is disappointed: “everything I bought sounded like something I had heard 10, 20, 30 years before.”
Out of this, and a number of other realisations, comes The17. This is the opposite of hauntology: to demand the radically new. Hauntology reinvigorates, reanimates the past—allegedly—turning the old musics to new purpose, much as Borge’s Pierre Menard does to the Quixote.
I think my problem with hauntology is that it deals with the problem of the future by going back to the past. And that is fine: but it will not save us.


March 21, 2011
This post is the second of seven posts about the future. Caveat lector.

Steampunk, while now well-distributed and originally offshore, feels quite British. A fetishisation of the difficult, the complex, the grimy, the high-friction and the physical. Engineering-fic. But too often it’s also a default position for a certain kind of literature, like London’s ‘gaslight mode’, that pea-souper, Jack The Ripper, Neverwhere Victoriana that sometimes feels like it’s deadening capital fictions. There must be other ways to mess with histories.
In a recent interview Michael Moorcock had this to say:
MM: In [1971 novel] The Warlord of the Air, for instance, I invented this specific form to do a specific job. And then 10 years later, 20 years later, I’m suddenly dragged into the steampunk movement, as a steampunk writer, which I wasn’t. And again, it’s disappointing to me, because very little steampunk that I’ve read actually does what I was trying to do with Warlord of the Air, which was, I was basically looking at, if you like, a Fabian view of Colonialism. It was an idea of Benign Colonialism, which I didn’t believe in. And I was trying to explore that.
Yeah. Whereas a lot of the steampunk doesn’t have that intellectual content, it just uses the period imagery.
MM: Yes, that’s right, and they think, “oh great, big airships! Wow!” You’re a bit suspicious of people who like too many big airships. You think, maybe you should be writing porn, you know!
Charlie Stross had a crack at the same problem: the depoliticisation, or absence of politics at all, in the genre, proposing an alternative steampunk that takes “the taproot history of the period seriously”:
Forget wealthy aristocrats sipping tea in sophisticated London parlours; forget airship smugglers in the weird wild west. A revisionist mundane SF steampunk epic — mundane SF is the socialist realist movement within our tired post-revolutionary genre — would reflect the travails of the colonial peasants forced to labour under the guns of the white Europeans’ Zeppelins, in a tropical paradise where severed human hands are currency and even suicide doesn’t bring release from bondage.
Stross’ argument is that second artist syndrome has stripped the genre of its politics and its scientific understanding, leaving it nothing but aesthetics (“nothing more than what happens when goths discover brown”).
It’s a call for a steampunk that explores all the conditions of its history: of the mill, and of the workhouse. It’s the same impulse that, when a friend throws a 1920s party, makes me want to turn up as a polio victim.
So steampunk—hell, *punk—is the retrofitting of today’s potentialities onto the technologies of an arbitrary point in the past. By doing so, those potentialities are made visible: like the distributed communication / packet switching encoded as pillars in the landscape in Keith Roberts’ proto-steampunk novel Pavane.
(That opening line about fetishising the difficult is actually a half-remembered quote from somewhere about the Britishness of Newspaper Club: a retrofit of potentialities onto older technologies if ever there was one.)
So, we can retrofit onto other periods too. Like Dieselpunk, “a subculture and a genre of art blending the aesthetics of the 1920s through the early 1950s with today”, whose self-description declares itself to be entirely aesthetic, prefiguring its devolution into bobby-socks, greaseballs and hotrods rather than anything political.
What about cavepunk, a potential genre that must exist somewhere between Modern Primitives and the Flintstones’ Family Saloon? I’m seeing a lot of fire, and a political focus on anarcho-primitivism and “rewilding”.
When I asked Russell a while back for alternatives to steampunk, he suggested 80s-punk, all massive walkmans and Nike Air Jordans. Back To The Future 2. Technology without the network. Fashionpunk (no).
Can *punk belong to the future, or is it predicated on past knowns? Cyberpunk did and wasn’t: it defined a territory by parodying it (Gibson was always a Beat writer). Likewise the developing-world futurism promised by AfroCyberPunk, which I keep linking to in an effort to will it into being (/being better). Gurgaonpunk. Paulistapunk.
I want to read a near-future enviropunk, where pandas are fed into woodchippers to give us the escape velocity to move beyond enviroconservatism.
Not Salvagepunk, which is merely a hauntological critique of *punk. Salvagepunk is total Dark Mountain, even while it rightly eviscerates hauntology’s endless wibbling about in the tickets of history as “pseudo-Leftist” in the worst sense: factional, morose, yearning for some never-never Golden Age of the past.
*punk is not the same as speculative fiction or alternative history. It’s more focused on technology, and the social implications of technology, than pure spec.fic or alt.hist. That’s what ties it ideally to Science Fiction, and why Sci Fi writers have started to rail against steampunk’s perceived decadence.
But it is definitely tied to time, which suggests there is a path to be made to Network Realism. Even if *punk can be considered anti-realist by definition, we can borrow some of its tools. Are all *punks subsets of timepunk? Or do they merely appear so because of a technological focus that so clearly situates and timestamps them?
(And I’m interested, I realise, because I want Network Realism for precisely the same reasons that Moorcock and Stross decry the aesthetisisation of steampunk: because the aesthetisisation of anything is an abdication of its politics, because the aesthetisisation of politics is fascism, and fascism is the opposite of imagination. We have too many dead literatures.)
If *punk doesn’t have to be about technology, what else can it be about?
Can we locate *punk in forbidden modes of writing, like slashfic, a proto-pornpunk, retrofitting different desires onto existing characters and situations? (Yes, we can.)
Thus, we locate *punk in the quietly radical queer writings of JR Ackerley and Jocelyn Brooke in the years before Wolfenden. These works inhabit a space of imminent possibility imagined by the writers as a way of calling such spaces into being, collapsing the quantum society of the time, full of hypocrises and hidden allowances. If designers are concerned with the recently possible, writers should be concerned with the imminent.
Essentially, *punk is a hollowing out of conceptual spaces based on only slightly varied worldlines. It may be subsumed by aesthetics, as is the problem with most bad steampunk (“stick some brass cogs on it”), but it may also uncover previously hidden possibilities.
Update, because there are going to be more:
  • Farmpunk via Matt Jones / Warren Ellis

Stop Lying About What You Do

March 23, 2011
This post is the third of seven posts about the future. Caveat lector.

I think it was only during the second Lord of the Rings film, The Two Towers, that it hit me. Hang on: I remember this. I remember not liking this.
Like so many others, I was excited by the prospect of the LOTR films. I loved LOTR! I was one of those quite geeky but smart kids who revelled in that imaginary, epic world. I’d read the books several times. It wasn’t until the above moment that I realised I had made this up.
Somewhere between reading the books and reaching my twenties, I had convinced myself that I was the sort of person who liked LOTR, who had read it as a kid, and again as a teenager. Convinced myself utterly. It took the buttock-numbing horror of Sam and Frodo’s long march to remind me that I hated Tolkien almost as much as I hated CS Lewis, and I needed to get out now—and bin the expensive set of LOTR hardbacks I’d recently bought and never opened.
The same impulse can be seen in the endless lies we tell others about ourselves, half-believing them. As a vegetarian (uncaring, unsentimental), I get this from carnivores all the time, it’s oddly pervasive. “Oh, we don’t eat much meat at home.” “I could give up meat.” “I’m almost vegetarian.”
“I don’t watch much TV” is the other one, when you tell people you don’t have a TV. (I don’t have a TV. I watch a bit of TV on the internet. I lie about how much. I’m lying now.)
The most offensive one: “I’d much rather shop at a little local shop.” Bullshit. If you did, there would be no Tescos. But you campaign against it and you petition the council and when it opens you shop there anyway and the little shops die, and you justify it because it’s there now, but that is precisely when action should be taken.
This willful lying to oneself is everywhere; it is particularly evident in attitudes to the future.
Everyone in publishing: “Ebooks will never catch on.” And in the same breath: “but I love my Kindle. It’s so useful for reading manuscripts/reports/whatever.”
Shmuel, a Flickr user and copywriter, put together this excellent bingo card of lies publishers tell themselves, willfully or not. The Ur-comment is at bottom right: “Evidence that doesn’t fit my beliefs is wrong.” What is extraordinary is that this continues even when we ourselves are generating the evidence, when we are our own exceptions.
We prejudge endlessly. Because we have not experienced the emotions that new technologies trigger we assume that they will be less powerful than the emotions we already know. Just because we haven’t had these feelings yet. I love books. But I know that ereading will inspire a whole new range of responses to the written word and I want these too (I am trying to collect them).
I am not saying this is easy. Bill Drummond again:
“Recorded music has run its course. It’s been mined out. It is so 20th Century, like proper money and fossil fuels. Maybe we have the internet to partly thank for this, like we have so much else to thank it for. It has helped speed things up, turning recorded music into this dated thing, like what happened to the German mark during the Weimar republic.” — The17, p.22
“Trying to explain why I think recorded music is in the process of becoming as dated as mosaic or pottery is pretty difficult when for most of us recorded music is the form of artistic communication that has had the most emotional impact on our lives.” — The17, p.145
I have to confess too, to stop lying.
I don’t read like I used to—although that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I rarely finish books. I’ve always had a habit of abandoning novels 50-100 pages before the end. I don’t know why, I’ve always done that. I think I’m doing it more and I don’t mind because I think my critical senses have improved and by eradicating book guilt I’ve reached a point where I am happy to cast things aside. I read 5, 10 books at once. I read them on paper and electronically as the mood takes me.
I read with continuous partial attention and I don’t care that I am frequently interrupting my own reading. I despise the discourse that says we are all shallow, that we are all flighty, distracted, not paying attention. I am paying attention, but I am paying attention to everything, and even if my knowledge is fragmented and hard to synthesise it is wider, and it plays in a vaster sphere, than any knowledge that has gone before.
I go through cycles of belief about the future of writing, of publishing, of the written word. But too much is broken to continue to pretend that the models we have become used to, the models of sales and distribution, of composition and recompense, of form and style, of reading and attention, can stagger on much longer.
This is the world we are living in and we can either lie to ourselves about it or we can dive headlong into the new forms and effects that it produces.

An Elixir of Reminding

March 24, 2011
This post is the fourth of seven posts about the future. Caveat lector.

In Jorge Luis Borges’ short story Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius a mysterious encyclopaedia entry leads to the discovery of a new world, a world whose precepts eventually achieve dominance on Earth. The ideas of Tlön manifest themselves in the physical world, until the old world has passed away.
In Tlön, Berkeleian idealism reaches its apogee. Berkeley believed that it was impossible to separate existence and perception: only that which could be directly perceived “existed”, and the rest of the material world was sustained by an omnipresent loving God. In Tlön, God is surplus to requirements. The Tlönian view recognizes perceptions as primary and denies the existence of any underlying reality. Things must be seen to survive: “Occasionally a few birds, a horse perhaps, have saved the ruins of an amphitheater.”
This is the worldview of the Pirahã, as described by Daniel Everett in his book Don’t Sleep There are Snakes:
When I first started working with the Pirahã, I realized that I needed more linguistics if I was going to understand their language. When I began to tell them the stories from the Bible, they didn’t have much of an impact. I wondered, was I telling the story incorrectly? Finally one Pirahã asked me one day, well, what color is Jesus? How tall is he? When did he tell you these things? And I said, well, you know, I’ve never seen him, I don’t know what color he was, I don’t know how tall he was. Well, if you have never seen him, why are you telling us this?
This is the immediacy of experience principle. If you didn’t see it, it didn’t happen.
This is what is becoming in the world: the acceptance, only, of lived experience. I did not hear it if it did not scrobble, I did not see it if it’s not on Flickr, I did not say it if it is unpublished. Without Foursquare, I am not even there.
Because of the network, our lived experience now encompasses everything: hence Network Realism. The All-Seeing Eye. The shared electronic consciousness, endlessly proliferating.
We’re repeatedly told that computers’ memories are better than ours, that Facebook photos will ruin our future careers, that our youthful indiscretions will last for a thousand years in the mind of the network. And so we give up our memories to the machines, endlessly feeding them with our thoughts and our experiences, hoping, desperately, to preserve them. Attempting to defy death.
Instagram is all about death. The 70s filters our parents used, artifacts of cameras we’ve never held. Nostalgia is the negation of death, it proves we are still living even without an identifiable future. Instagram is a machine for producing instant nostalgia, a ward against death.
There’s been a recent rush of deliberate delayed-nostalgia services: Photojojo’s Time Capsule, Twitshift, 4squareand7yearsago. They are good, but they are strangely insecure. Tell me I have lived. Remind me. I cannot remember.
We are told that digital (over)sharing on social networks and the like is a natural human impulse, that we’re merely augmenting extant human needs, the need to communicate, to form social groups. But what if sharing is actually a mourning for what we have lost? Or, that which our lives are now too full to contain.
The world overflows with experience and information. We cannot remember or contain it all. And so we attempt to spread it, jettisoning it back into the world in order to preserve it.
The process of evolution and civilisation is a process of outsourcing, of labour, of capital, of our own neurophysiological processes. We are all electrical systems: the National Grid is an outsourcing of the nervous system. All infrastructures are prosthetics, outsourcing our physical properties.
The internet is the outsourcing of our mental faculties, but books, written and recorded music, literature and song have been technologies for remotely storing mental faculties—culture—in physical media and in delay loops, for quite some time.
I asked “Why is outsourcing our memory different to outsourcing our food or electricity supplies?”
And Will replied “Maybe we’ll look back on the era of “subsistence memory” with the same horror as we regard subsistence farming.”
Sharing is a form of memory. Memory is an active process, it must be constantly enacted and consumed. Soylent Green is our own memories.
This is, of course, not just about network technologies; the network merely promulgates and synthesises ideas faster than ever before. In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates repeats the speech of an Egyptian King named Thamus to Theuth, the god who has just invented writing:
“This invention, O king,” said Theuth, “will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memories; for it is an elixir of memory and wisdom that I have discovered.”
But Thamus replied, “Most ingenious Theuth, one man has the ability to beget arts, but the ability to judge of their usefulness or harmfulness to their users belongs to another; and now you, who are the father of letters, have been led by your affection to ascribe to them a power the opposite of that which they really possess. For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise.”

The House of Wisdom

March 24, 2011
This post is the fifth of seven posts about the future. Caveat lector.

All art is a process of transmission: a passing of messages between minds and generations. As the Ethiopians carried the Ark away down the Nile, as the Arabs cared for Greek learning for five hundred years, so our current work is not one of production ex nihilo, but one of cultural protection, preservation and transmission.
The middle ages lasted from the 5th to the 15th century (“medieval” was not coined until the 15th—the periods historians tell us we are living through are rarely apparent to us). What happened in this interlude has become known as the transmission of the classics.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, knowledge of Greek literature and thought declined in the West, where interest was primarily in religious documents. Non-Christian texts were scraped clean and their materials recycled; those papyri not copied over to parchment decayed and became dust.
It was the expansion of the Caliphate, and particularly the growth in power of the Persian-originated Abbassids that saw the Hellenistic knowledge taken up by Arab scribes and scholars. In the House of Wisdom in Baghdad from the 9th to the 13th centuries, thousands of Greek texts were translated; first technical and medical works, and later philosophy. In turn, the commentaries on these texts by figures such as Al-Kindi, Al-Farabi and Ibn Sina fuelled a rationalistic revolution in the Islamic world.
Meanwhile, not only the texts, but the very ideas they carried—pagan ideas—were lost to Europe for centuries. If they returned, they did so as foreign conquerors, in the libraries and hospitals of al-Andalus. Only in the 12th Century, following a tentative beginning in Spain, did the second wave of translation begin, as the monks of Monte Cassino and the scholars of Toledo, and figures such as William of Moerbeke and Gerard of Cremona, began to make available the ancient knowledge, philosophy and drama of the Arabs, Jews and Greeks to a literate Western Latin readership.
Sometimes the gate through which such knowledge passes is very narrow indeed. Take Euripides, who wrote around ninety plays in ancient Athens, of which eighteen have come down to us. Unlike Aeschylus and Sophocles, whose seven best works survived in numerous editions due to their quality, what we have of Euripides is a semi-arbitrary collection of works which derive from a single archetype of the 9th or 10th century, copied some time in the 11th century to produce the manuscripts called L and P. The eight plays in P survive only by virtue of their titles: P is the the E-K section of a larger, alphabetical collection.
This is one form of transmission: geographical and lexical, across languages and borders, through time and space. The other is the kind of transmission that happens in a little room, as the text itself is transposed. In the mediaeval world, this took place in the scriptoria of the great monasteries—rarely a dedicated room in itself, as was once believed, but an ad hoc space where the work could be carried out. Copying manuscripts was hard work, but it was good work; doing good and receiving its just rewards.
We may be interested in how it transformed the scribes themselves, the people doing the transmitting. Johannes Trithemius, the great cryptographer and Abbot of Sponheim, wrote De Laude Scriptorum (In Praise of Scribes) to list the virtues both of the people and their practice:
“The dedicated scribe, the object of our treatise, will never fail to praise God, give pleasure to angels, strengthen the just, convert sinners, commend the humble, confirm the good, confound the proud and rebuke the stubborn… [This scribe,] while he is writing on good subjects, is by the very act of writing introduced in a certain measure into the knowledge of the mysteries and greatly illuminated in his innermost soul; for those things which we write we more firmly impress upon the mind… While he is ruminating on the Scriptures he is frequently inflamed by them.”
Trithemius believed it was necessary to continue to copy manuscripts by hand, even in the age of the printing press, because of historical precedent, because of the spiritual action of transcription, because of the fragility of printed books (“The printed book is made of paper and, like paper, will quickly disappear. But the scribe working with parchment ensures lasting remembrance for himself and for his text”). In this way, the monks of the Middle Ages came to intimately know and experience the texts that they copied. The act of transcription became an act of meditation and prayer, not a simple replication of letters.
In Fahrenheit 451 the books are being eliminated by a totalitarian society, because they “make people unhappy”. And so people learn the books, in order to preserve them:
“[The Book People] are books. Each one, men and women. Everyone commits a book they’ve chosen to memory and they become the books. Of course sometimes one gets arrested. That’s why they live so secretly. Because the secret they carry is the most precious secret in the world. Without them, all human knowledge would pass away.”
With reference to the previous post in this series it is worth noting that in Soylent Green, the character of Sol, played by the masterful Edward G Robinson is also “a book”: both a scribe and a researcher, a repository of knowledge.
Another Borges story: Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote. Pierre Menard is one of those faux-biographies that Borges and many South American authors are so fond of (cf Bolaño’s superlative Nazi Literature in the Americas). Menard’s singular achievement is to produce an invisible work:
I turn now to his other work: the subterranean, the interminably heroic, the peerless. And—such are the capacities of man!—the unfinished. This work, perhaps the most significant of our time, consists of the ninth and thirty-eighth chapters of the first part of Don Quixote and a fragment of chapter twenty-two. I know such an affirmation seems an absurdity; to justify this “absurdity” is the primordial object of this note.
Menard composes not “another Quixote—which is easy—but the Quixote itself.” A word-for-word re-rendering of the text: a perfect identification with the original author which produces an entirely new work: because, of course, it means something radically different. For a former soldier to write the Quixote in Seventeenth century Spain is one thing; for Menard, a Twentieth century Frenchman, to do so is a radically different conception.
In the scriptoria of Google’s scanning labs and the digitisation houses of Alexandria and Noida, in Bangalore and Manila, the Pierre Menards of the Twenty-First Century are working now. Our literature goes out from us and returns again, subtly changed and reenergised.
Every time we engage with culture, we change it. Copying is an act of creation—recreation is creation because it arouses the spirit of the original in a new time, giving it new meaning. The work of the House of Wisdom continues today, every day, and the process of transmission, transliteration, transmutation and retransmission that once took five hundred years now happens in the blink of an eye.


March 26, 2011
This post is the sixth of seven posts about the future. Caveat lector.

We live in strange times for news and newspapers, for government and secrecy, for states and individuals. And the reaction of the media is interesting. Two key responses have fled in opposite directions along the timeline.
One approach has been to go pure data, full real-time. The Guardian has embraced this approach and during recent spikes in attention—Tahrir Square, Fukushima—even the BBC has followed suit, live-blogging the present with only the slimmest editorial intervention, the barest nod to checking sources.
The other is to pull back, to go behind the paywall, to retrench. The Daily is the lowest example of this: it explicitly denies the new medium, even while it pretends to embrace it. “The Daily”, not “The Daily News” or somesuch: this is what you will have today. This news is push, not pull. Suck it.
Wikileaks presented a direct challenge to journalism’s claim to represent the media, as Work Without Dread noted:
“[Journalists] primary reaction is to struggle with WikiLeaks’ wielding of information without narratives—except that of its own heroism–and without neutrality. Rather than addressing the reader from a position between the reader and the state, WikiLeaks make the reader a witness to a contest between the state and itself, while the media mediates between the files and the reader.”
“Information without narratives”, the nightmare of an ever-unfolding situation, inimicable to interpretation. Benjamin’s Angel: “Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.”
Strange, bathetic effects ripple outward. In the Pakistani media, a slew of faked cables attacking India (The Guardian notes, delightfully, that “this is the first case of WikiLeaks being exploited for propaganda purposes”). A serial Amazon prankster uploads a Kindle text purporting to be the complete cable set (it no longer claims this), prompting a torrent of baseless invective (Amazon being one of the many companies to withdraw services from Wikileaks’ online presence). Flash crashes in reality.
Wikileaks speaks directly to the immense paradox at the heart of all our liberal-tech thinking. People, given better information, will make the best decisions. Right? The more we know about any given situation the better we are equipped to deal with it.
According to this theory, the internet is the sharp tool of democracy, because it offers endless amounts of information which we may synthesise into a better world. But the reality is desperately obverse. Given these conditions, conspiracy run rampant. People cling to ever more extreme viewpoints, they cling to the edges, desperately seeking firmer ground. The 9/11 Truth movement, Jihadists, Birthers, the EDL. These are the best exploiters of this truth.
Information is supposed to flow towards truth, but truth occupies the higher ground. I’m not saying the theory is wrong: I don’t know of a better one. But it’s not that simple, either, and that bothers me.
Back in December, two days after the start of the Cablegate releases, Wikileaks tweeted:
WikiLeaks is the first global Samizdat movement. The truth will surface even in the face of total annihilation.
The original samizdat, an underground network of cheaply- or hand-printed texts, passed hand-to-hand by Soviet dissidents, was designed to evade censorship, bypassing official channels. It relies on a network of people who care; one of the most noticeable early reactions to Wikileaks in the media was boredom. The instinct was to deny that this information was interesting. As Work Without Dread notes: “Maybe, then, it’s actually the vastness of such uncaring that WikiLeaks brings to light, in so doing giving it the chance to be otherwise.”
Uncaring is the enemy of protest. And for those of us who have done things to get noticed; who marched, for example, a million strong through the streets of London against a war, and were ignored, uncaring is a very big enemy indeed.
So: an experiment. A return to samizdat. 200 newspapers, printed with a selection of the released cables, vetted for libel and D-Notice infringements (the two things that can still definitely get you into trouble if you republish them), distributed on the London Underground during the morning rush hour of December 15th 2010. Standard newspaper format, a bit of celebrity gossip (Andrew) and sport at the back.
Each newspaper was fronted by a simple hashtag, #wikileakspaper, to make researching the effect easier.

(More photos on Flickr, obvs.)
The effect was negligible. Some were read; the ones I saw were swiftly discarded. A single reference surfaced online, in, of all places, a Dutch Playstation forum. The London Underground is awash with free newspapers, 200 is a tiny number. When you spend an hour mooching about at rush hour, you notice how many are being constantly swept up.
Consider #wikileakspaper an unsatisfactory experiment, but a necessary one. For a while now, I have been pissing about on the boundary between physical and digital, printing out bits of the internet, making things that look like the things we know (eg, eg, eg). And I realise I have been doing this in order to understand what happens when things pass in the opposite direction; into air. Because the traffic is almost entirely in the other direction. We are taking the things we know and transmuting them into something we do not yet understand: books, literature, news, truth.
Jennifer Brook, who makes artists’ books and iPad apps, speaking earlier this year: “Craftspeople are technologists, and technologists are craftspeople; the only difference is the velocity of the material they choose to work.” Humbly, I would add a further qualification, a further dimension. Celerity, or “proper velocity”, is velocity which takes the effects of relativity into account: the observer is travelling too; we are all travelling in time. The material has its own celerity.
One day, politics will take this into account. From an alleged NSA text:
“Our efforts might, in some cases, be better applied to understanding the motivations and dynamics that are creating the secrets in the first place, with an eye toward coming up with a system that better maps to the human processes and behavioral tendencies.
“We may find that by shifting the structures, rules, and value systems in human space, we have fewer secrets to deal with. We may find that we can alter the human-space systems to clarify the context and valuation of secrets, and put them into a form more amenable to elegant automation. We must get back to the notion that, in dealing with secrets, the human/automation construct works better if the whole system is adapted to the behaviors, values, and motivations of the humans.”
* * *
Update 28/3/11: This is as much a placeholder for myself, but after a couple of recent conversations, it strikes me that the #wikileakspaper is an attempt to disrupt the echo chamber; that is, this effect mentioned above that people cluster around their existing interests despite the many options available to them. By printing out something (in this case, an internet site) that people would not normally read/visit (might actively resist visiting), and putting it into the world, we increase (marginally) the possibility that they may discover it anyway… This is an inelegant and inefficient solution, and one that failed, but I think that might be what’s going on.
Update 31/3/11: And is there something in the fleeting quality of the newspaper that points even more strongly towards true fleetingness of electronic information. More so than books, which become rare, these newspapers disappear entirely, swept up, burned or buried.

The Author of Everything

March 27, 2011
This post is the seventh of seven posts about the future. Caveat lector. A story to round it off…

Every morning I wake up in my house in Vishaka and walk via the aloo poori stall on Shyamji Krishna Varma Marg to Pitampura metro station and there I board the Line 1 train, changing at Kashmere Gate and again at Connaught Place and out over the Yamuna river to Noida, the location of my employer, Shiva Digitisation Services Inc. The metro is new and bright despite the sand that settles on the staircases and as I ride it I can look down into the streets where time travels on rickshaws and bicycles, on foot and in taxicabs. We all experience time at different rates, but in Delhi it is close to being visible in its contrasts: time washes down the streets like currents in a river, faster round the corners, sloshing into shops and tea stalls and growing thick with algae and broken kulhars in the gutters.
When I arrive in Noida I cross four streets and climb seven flights of stairs to the office where I sit with eighteen other people in the largest room in the building, which is laid out as a series of partitioned desks which we have mostly broken down so that we can see one another and so that the breeze that comes down from the once-bright fans in the ceiling spreads and flows around us; and there we take out our books.
Shiva Digitisation Services Inc is a digitisation house; that is, we make books—texts—digital, receiving paper and transmuting it, making ebooks out of textbooks and non-fiction stories and histories and theses and scholarly works and novels.
This is how it works: when a publisher wants to make an old book new again, to lift it off the page and enter it into the electronic consciousness which increasingly resembles the very air we breathe, he ships it to us, Shiva Digitisation Services Inc, of Noida, UP, encased in bubble wrap and cardboard so that no harm may come to it.
If it is a cheap job, we take the book and we place it on the guillotine, where we sever it from its spine, as the lowly have always, eventually, done to the most high, and then we feed it page by page into the sheet scanner, and expose it to the machinations of the Optical Character Recognition software, and out comes an electronic text, something that resembles language when properly decoded but is in fact a long string of binary, almost atomic, almost purified.
And while this purified text may be cleaner and more speedily read by a computer than its physical ancestor it is nevertheless riddled with errors to a human eye: false punctuation marks, run-together words and letters, like m for nn and E for &, and spaces or their opposite where none should be.
So if the client pays a little more we poke the text a corresponding and appropriate amount, correcting the most obvious flaws, catching the odd stray capitalisation, breaking the lines in the right place, turning false caps to ornaments, and so on and so forth. It is usually enough.
But if the client is particularly demanding—and few are—then we employ the ultimate measure: double-keying. In this method the original book is preserved, and a higher level of accuracy is achieved. Double-keying is literally typing, and Ravi and I take a copy of the book each, and for a couple of days we sit and type out the book itself, reinhabiting the author’s world for those hours, bending over the keyboard as he or she did, following his or her plot and the inner and outer lives of their characters, flying above the landscape of the text in a way that few readers, lost in the thickets, do, because we are copyists.
And our work is doubled up because inevitably a few mistakes creep in, a miskey here, a forgotten conjunction there: the hardest part is not descending to earth again, and becoming lost, like a mere reader, in the narrative. So when we finish our two versions they are checked one against the other and these minor errors are erased and this is enough to produce as near as we are ever going to get to a perfect copy.
Except Ravi and I have an arrangement, which I suggested some time ago, and to which he acquiesced, although I do not mean to claim that what results is entirely my own doing: Ravi has made suggestions too, although his personal tastes run to the bizarre and esoteric, almost religious, and are frequently too bald, too obvious, too wild, or otherwise unsuitable for inclusion.
We have an arrangement to make changes. Just one or two—for now—in every other book that passes through our hands, or so, in every other book we copy, just a couple of small things. And because these are agreed upon, because we have an arrangement, and the diff check comes up clean every time, our clients never know—they never read the books that we pore over—and so, gradually, we introduce into the world a new literature, subtly altered and remade in our own imaginations.
In our books, perhaps, the change may be as small as the name of a location: the protagonist turns left rather than right, down this street and not that one, enters this particular building instead—a regular, nondescript shop, hotel or office—but a building that did not previously exist until we invented it and which will live now in the minds of the book’s readers even as the old one falls into ruin and one day is gone.
Or perhaps the change will be a little more personal. A minor character who, mentioned in passing as having passed away, only a small figure, a throwaway sentence to the original author: we will let live. Instead of death, he will inherit an estate, travel abroad, find a new life for himself in a far and distant place where the casual violence of the story cannot touch him. Sometimes a name, used or forgotten in the right place, is enough. Sometimes erasure; sometimes addition.
In this way we make our mark on the history: a keystroke or two, a slight omission, an elision or vague reference to something new, which will live on, and in years to come such things may be the crux on which other references, ideas, people and places, real and imagined, may rest. Nothing that lasts, lasts untouched. Each thing bears the marks of its use, the fingerprints of those who have, however briefly, lived in and through it, no matter how seemingly transient, ephemeral or intangible.
And does it matter? Because what have they done with these books, these people? These readers? They have read them and each of them have taken them in their own way, have read them sideways and backwards and glancingly, each differently, so that they have made of them a thousand books, one for each reader, and after them they have piled them up in stacks and arranged them on shelves and they have become the bricks of their selves—unopened again, unlived-in. They have moved house and packed them into boxes, into cars and lorries, and carried them into new places and unpacked them on new shelves to gather dust again. Or they have gone away for a time and the bricks have sat in silent storage rooms, in garages, in attics, for years, for decades, until on their return, perhaps never, the cases are broken open again, and these bricks, these corpses, are shuffled and set out and displayed in the light again, to fade and grow brittle. Or they have mouldered in libraries until passed out to skips and second-hand shops where the odd lucky one is picked up and handled, and perhaps a few orphans are rehoused but the great mass languish, starved of attention, unknown to the world of which they are unknowing, until they too decay and fall apart and are no more.
But my books: my books live again, are made new, are reanimated. I make them strange and fresh again, no longer breathing the dead air of old trunks and times but awakened in a new dawn and changed.
We do not own our literatures, any more than we own our culture, or history, or the place where we are born or live now or are buried: we merely rent them, and during the times for which they are in our possession we make of them what we can, and then we pass them on; they pass away and out of our lives.
And the greatest gift we can give to them is to breathe into them; to animate them in our minds and make them dance a little. I merely do with the words themselves what we all do in our heads: bend them to our own lives and circumstances, make them relevant and connected to our world, charge them with my own imagination. And here, now, dancing is enough.

An Essay on the New Aesthetic

I witnessed the New Aesthetic panel at South by Southwest 2012. It was a significant event and a good thing to see.
If you know nothing of the “New Aesthetic,” or if you have no idea what “SXSW” is, you should repair your ignorance right away. Go peruse this:
Now, I know full well that many people never returned from that link I placed up there. There was plenty going on over there to beguile them quite a while. I’m glad that they’re gone, because I intended, all along, to write a long, much-pondered essay for the rest of you. You, the people who marinate themselves in 5,000-word critical exegeses about contemporary aesthetics.
You people are either exceedingly determined blog-readers, or else you already know something about the New Aesthetic. Likely you’re as fretful about it as I am. Likely, you were part of that small elite physically there in that SXSW2012 audience, and hoping that you didn’t have to write this #sxaesthetic essay yourself.
You people already know who you are. So do I. Let’s cozy on up in here and get this over with.
Joanne McNeil of Rhizome was right when she said at SXSW that things like the New Aesthetic often happen. They do indeed happen, but we don’t see them around much, nowadays. The New Aesthetic is one thing among a kind: it’s like early photography for French Impressionists, or like silent film for Russian Constructivists, or like abstract-dynamics for Italian Futurists.
The New Aesthetic is image-processing for British media designers. That’s more or less what it is, and although it belongs to a small group of creatives right now, we have every reason to take it, and its prospects, seriously.
This is one of those moments when the art world sidles over toward a visual technology and tries to get all metaphysical. This is the attempted imposition on the public of a new way of perceiving reality. These things occur. They often take a while to blossom. Sometimes they’re as big and loud as Cubism, sometimes they perish like desert roses mostly unseen. But they always happen for good and sufficient reasons. Our own day has those good and sufficient reasons.
The New Aesthetic 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. Lush, humanistic, exotic crops will grow from that smoking, ashy techno-rubble of ours, someday. I live to think so. I’m all for that prospect. It’s exhilarating to see such things attempted, especially in a small auditorium before the straights catch on.
What’s more, I rather like the trend-line there. I’ve seen some attempts along this line before, but this one has muscle. The New Aesthetic is moving out of its original discovery phase, and into a evangelical, podium-pounding phase. If a pioneer village of visionary creatives is founded, and they start exporting some startling, newfangled imagery, like a Marcel Duchamp-style explosion-in-a-shingle-factory… Well, we’ll once again be living in heroic times!
I admired the way that panel behaved. Everyone participating in it (for the record, that was James Bridle, Joanne McNeil, Ben Terrett, Aaron Straup Cope, and Russell Davies) had a clear idea of what the concept meant and why it mattered to them. They were fully-briefed and they sounded plausible.
James Bridle is the master of that salon. James Bridle has never yet claimed to be the Andre Breton-style Pope of the New Aesthetic, but in practice, nobody ever asks the central questions of anybody else but him. So, Bridle’s the guru there. Fine. To be an art-guru is never an elective office. I was glad to see a volunteer for this public labor. He chaired the panel and he did a good job of it. That role suited his extensive talents. He should do more of that.
He has company. The New Aesthetic has the “scenius” of London’s Silicon Roundabout to support it. These people are working creatives of Bridle’s generation, with their networked tentacles sunk deep in interaction design, literature, fashion and architecture. They do have some strange ideas, but they can’t all be crazy. They are focussed and energetic, and some of them are getting famous fast. With the New Aesthetic, they’re coming up with something that looks more or less like a weltanschauung.
Not being British, I always like to spare the blushes of the British. I don’t believe that the New Aesthetic crowd, who are Britishly reticent and decent and all that, much wants to be branded as a significant avant-garde group. It must pain them to be praised for being important to us foreigners. Still, it makes some sense.
Where else would something like this emerge nowadays, if not London? London’s not so perky and dopey as it was in the miniskirted days of Mary Quant, but it’s still London. There are even technical aspects of London — like the relentless machine surveillance — that no other region can match.
If you wanted a creative movement whose logo is a Predator supported by glossy, multicolored toy balloons, London would be its natural launchpad.
Having established this, I must now try something more difficult. I must try to explain the New Aesthetic to a wondering mankind. Everybody who attempts this seems to hope and feel that the New Aesthetic must be a private solution to their own personal creative problems. Well, I myself don’t believe that. As a creative who mostly types a lot of words in a row, I have some other personal creative problems. I do think the New Aesthetic offers solutions to some of London’s modern problems. That would be a big deal in itself.
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.
There are some good aspects to this modern situation, and there are some not so good ones.
Art movements used to be Left Bank café tables where disaffected creatives quarreled about headlines in newspapers. “Theory objects” from the Internet are squamous, crabgrass-like entities, where people huddle around swollen, unstable databases. We know more or less how analog art movements once behaved. We don’t yet know much at all about collectively-intelligent theory-object “shareable concepts,” whether they’re worth anything or can deliver anything. Maybe they will brilliantly synergize. Maybe they will ignobly crash. Maybe they’ll have the mayfly lifespans of their hardware support. Maybe they will become things even harder to describe than they are now.
First, some “good” aspects of the New Aesthetic.
Above all, the New Aesthetic is telling the truth. There truly are many forms of imagery nowadays that are modern, and unique to this period. We’re surrounded by systems, devices and machineries generating heaps of raw graphic novelty. We built them, we programmed them, we set them loose for a variety of motives, but they do some unexpected and provocative things.
Bridle’s collection of this material is huge. The evidence is impossible to refute. Anybody with a spark of perception who looks through this thing:
must recognize that modern reality is on display there. What we think about that, or do about that, is another matter. That it exists is not in question.
Look at those images objectively. Scarcely one of the real things in there would have made any sense to anyone in 1982, or even in 1992. People of those times would not have known what they were seeing with those New Aesthetic images. It’s the news, and it’s the truth.
Next, the New Aesthetic is culturally agnostic. Most anybody with a net connection ought to be able to see the New Aesthetic transpiring in real time. It is British in origin (more specifically, it’s part and parcel of a region of London seething with creative atelier “tech houses”). However, it exists wherever there is satellite surveillance, locative mapping, smartphone photos, wifi coverage and Photoshop.
The New Aesthetic is comprehensible. It’s easier to perceive than, for instance, the “surrealism” of a fur-covered teacup. Your Mom could get it. It’s funny. It’s pop. It’s transgressive and punk. Parts of it are cute.
It’s also deep. If you want to get into arcane matters such as interaction design, computational aesthetics, covert surveillance, military tech, there’s a lot of room for that activity in the New Aesthetic. The New Aesthetic carries a severe, involved air of Pynchonian erudition.
It’s contemporary. It’s temporal rather than atemporal. Atemporality is all about cerebral, postulated, time-refuting design-fictions. Atemporality is for Zenlike gray-eminence historian-futurist types. The New Aesthetic is very hands-on, immediate, grainy and evidence-based. Its core is a catalogue of visible glitches in the here-and-now, for the here and for the now.
It requires close attention. If you want to engage with the New Aesthetic, then you must become involved with some contemporary, fast-moving technical phenomena. The New Aesthetic is inherently modish because it is ferociously attached to modish, passing objects and services that have short shelf-lives. There is no steampunk New Aesthetic and no remote-future New Aesthetic. The New Aesthetic has no hyphen-post, hyphen-neo or hyphen-retro. They don’t go there, because that’s not what they want.
The New Aesthetic is constructive. Most New Aesthetic icons carry a subtext about getting excited and making something similar. The New Aesthetic doesn’t look, act, or feel postmodern. It’s not deconstructively analytical of a bourgeois order that’s been dead quite a while now. It’s built by and for working creatives.
It is generational. Most of the people in its network are too young to have been involved in postmodernity. The twentieth century’s Modernist Project is like their Greco-Roman antiquity. They want something of their own to happen, to be built, and to be seen on their networks. If that has little or nothing to do with their dusty analog heritage, so much the better for them.
So. These seem to me to be fine things. They’re not my own things, but I can see why they make good sense. They show promise. They have depth and breadth. They matter. They will have lasting consequence.
It’ll take a while for the New Aesthetic to go somewhere important, if it goes anywhere at all, but that’s all right. This decade of the teens already has a set character, it is crisis doomer gothic favela atemporal. The New Aesthetic isn’t like that, and doesn’t belong to that. It is a fresh and different thing. It’s an avant-garde, and it commonly takes years for society to recuperate an avant-garde. In 2012, premonitory blogposts; in 2022, solo shows and coffee-table books.
So we may anticipate. Now for some of the more troublesome aspects.
First, the New Aesthetic is a gaudy, network-assembled heap. It’s made of digitized jackstraws that were swept up by a generational sensibility. The products of a “collective intelligence” rarely make much coherent sense.
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.
These are the forms of imagery that Bridle’s collaborators have thrown over his transom. There’s lots, they’re all cool, and most are rather interesting, and some are even profound, but they don’t march together.
Those cats just don’t herd yet; that puzzle is still in its pieces. One can try to cluster them, in a vague ecumenical way, by saying, “This is how contemporary reality looks to our pals, the visionary machines.” But that’s not convincing. I recognize that this is an effective, poetic formulation, and I’m touched by that, but it’s problematic. When you abandon the feel-good aspect of collectively discovering new stuff together, and start getting rigorous and picky about what you’re actually perceiving, the New Aesthetic Easter eggs rather overflow their wicker basket.
Let’s critically nitpick a little, shall we? Dazzle camouflage has nothing to do with “machine vision.” Machines are incapable of a state of mind like “dazzle.” Camou is all about human vision.
Glitches and corruption artifacts aren’t “machine vision,” either. Those are the failures of machine processing, and failures of machine displays built for human vision.
Satellite views are not new, but as old as the Space Age. Locativity is rather new, but aerial views were championed by Marinetti as “aero-futurism” way back in the 1930s. Aero-Futurism failed quickly, because aerial pictures are visually boring. If aerial views weren’t boring, we’d all stare in fixed awe from the portholes of our big boring jetliners, and even New Aesthetic guys can’t bring themselves to do that.
“Render ghosts” are not “ghostly.” They are unlikely to provoke any Gothic shivers in anybody who’s ever seen clip-art.
Finally, retro ’80s graphics are sentimental fluff for modern adults who grew up in front of 1980s game-console machines. Eight-bit graphics are pretty easy to carve out of styrofoam. There’s a low barrier-to-entry in making sculpture from 8-bit, so that you can “rupture the interface between the digital and the physical.” However 8-bit sculptures are a cute, backward-looking rupture.
So, these are some critic-style aesthetic problems, although it’s old-fashioned to talk that way about an archive assembled from the Internet. Beefing about a Tumblr full of cool pix is like complaining that a logjam isn’t as neatly assembled as a dam.
However, dams accomplish purposes that logjams can’t accomplish. Because dams have purpose. Crowdsourced heaps of eye-candy are inherently low on purpose. Nobody ever writes art-history about big committees.
The problem I’m describing here is rather like the famous Walter Benjamin problem of “art in the age of mechanical reproduction.” As we all know nowadays, when those machines showed up, that aura went missing, somehow.
James Bridle obviously gets this, or he wouldn’t write manifestos about remaking electronic books so that they have some more Walter Benjamin aura. But Bridle is facing a new but related problem, which is native to our own time. It assails critics like Walter Benjamin, rather than Walter Benjamin’s hapless artists.
James Bridle is a Walter Benjamin critic in an “age of digital accumulation”. Bridle carries out a valiant cut-and-paste campaign that looks sorta like traditional criticism, but is actually blogging and tumblring. His New Aesthetic Tumblr bears the resemblance to thoughtful critique that mass production once did to handmade artifacts.
Now, this isn’t some personal James Bridle failing. Mr Bridle didn’t invent social media, any more than the industrial automation of atelier artwork was somehow the fault of Herr Walter Benjamin.
However, this is a pressing New Aesthetic problem, maybe the core problem at the root there. The bandwidth is available, the images are there, and the robots and digital devices get plenty of look-in. Where did the people go? Where is the aura, where is the credibility? Are robots with cameras supposed to have our credibility for us? They don’t.
We’re not going to be able to gloss over this gaping vacuity by “making the machines our friends.” Because they’re not our friends. Machines are never our friends, even if they’re intimates in our purses and pockets eighteen hours a day. They may very well be our algorithmic investors, but they’re certainly not our art critics, because at that, they suck even worse than they do at running our economy.
If machine vision was our pal, then we wouldn’t need James Bridle to assert that for us. We’d have a Bridlebot, a Googleized visual search-engine that could generate as much aesthetics as we want.
That won’t happen. Why not? Because it is impossible. It’s as impossible as Artificial Intelligence, which is a failed twentieth-century research campaign, reduced to a sci-fi conceit. That’s why the “New Aesthetic” isn’t about “robot vision” from “digital devices,” even when it claims that, as a rhetorical gesture to grant itself some aura.
The New Aesthetic isn’t a chromed android glistening with scifi robot-vision aura. The New Aesthetic is a rather old, and hearteningly traditional, story about a regional, generational cluster of creative people who are perceiving important stuff that other, older, and dumber people don’t get quite yet. It’s a typical avant-garde art movement that has arisen within a modern network society. That’s what is going on.
We’re all supposed to think that an avant garde is impossible within postmodernity, so we don’t talk about it much nowadays; the very term “avant-garde” sounds musty and weird now, very old-fashioned future. However, time passes, and such things happen anyhow, because generations change and technologies change. Changes in personnel and the means of production will trump the formulations of an aging philosophy. These avant-gardes pretty much must happen, and there isn’t any honest way to fob this problem off onto some romanticized vision-bots. The bots are just not going to carry that water-bucket. There’s an Uncanny Valley there.
Anybody with Instructables can make a working robot nowadays. Nobody builds Turing-Tested machines that hang out in a really-interesting London atelier and talk and act like Alan Turing, only much artier. If you don’t believe me, try that. Build it, do it. Smarter, better-funded people than you have failed at that for sixty years. It’s a lure and a snare.
Sure, there are ruptures and crossovers there: bots, infomorphs, algorithms, autonomous Yankee illegal killer aircraft, and so forth — but aesthetics is not a place where they can thrive. They can’t do that any more than a drone can lay eggs.
James Bridle has said many times that he thinks that “New Aesthetic” is a problematic coinage, that it’s “rubbish.” However, rubbish is what appears when one is trying to hide out in the tall weeds instead of manfully sweeping the floors. The true problem with the New Aesthetic is that it truly is a new aesthetic. It has to become one, even if it doesn’t much want to be one.
“Aesthetics” are more that whatever gets splashed onto Cafe Press T-shirts this season. Aesthetics are by their nature metaphysical.
Aesthetics are, by definition, how beauty is perceived and valued in a human sensorium. Aesthetics is therefore an issue of metaphysics. Perception, beauty, judgment and value are all metaphysical issues.
Our human, aesthetic reaction to the imagery generated by our machines is our own human problem. We are the responsible parties there. We can program robots and digital devices to generate images and spew images at our eyeballs. We can’t legitimately ask them to tell us how to react to that.
I hasten to assure you that I’m not making lame vitalist claims that our human reactions are mystical, divine, immaterial, timeless or absolute in truth. I am merely stating, as a stark and demonstrable fact, that our machines have no such reactions. To rely on them to do that for us is fraudulent.
Hiding that aesthetic problem under a machinic fairy-tale is like hiding the political problems of the Internet by stating that it’s a Noosphere. That can be done. It’s undoubtably a cool thing to say: Teilhard de Chardin said that, and John Perry Barlow said it. A theologian, a poet and songwriter, cool guys, I love those guys, lots of them around. Critically speaking, that is rubbish. The New Aesthetic is gooey all over with noosphere sauce. It can’t go where it needs to go, unless it climbs out of that old rubbish patch. Over it, around it, through it, whatever it may take.
The New Aesthetic is a genuine aesthetic movement with a weak aesthetic metaphysics. It’s sticky with bogus lyricism.
I will hammer that iron nail a bit more, in case you aren’t getting it yet. Because this is the older generation’s crippling hangup with their alleged “thinking machines.” When computers first shoved their way into analog reality, they came surrounded by a host of poetic metaphors. Cybernetic devices were clearly much more than mere motors and engines, so they were anthropomorphized and described as having “thought,” “memory,” and nowadays “sight” and “hearing.” Those metaphors are deceptive. These are the mental chains of the old aesthetic, these are the iron bars of oppression we cannot see.
Modern creatives who want to work in good faith will have to fully disengage from the older generation’s mythos of phantoms, and masterfully grasp the genuine nature of their own creative tools and platforms. Otherwise, they will lack comprehension and command of what they are doing and creating, and they will remain reduced to the freak-show position of most twentieth century tech art. That’s what is at stake.
Computers don’t and can’t make sound aesthetic judgements. Robots lack cognition. They lack perception. They lack intelligence. They lack taste. They lack ethics. They just don’t have any. Tossing in more software and interactivity, so that they’re even jumpier and more apparently lively, that doesn’t help.
It’s not their fault. They are not moral actors and they are incapable of faults. It’s our fault for pretending otherwise, for fooling ourselves, for projecting our own qualities onto phenomena that we built, that are very interesting to us, but not at all like us. We can’t give them those qualities of ours, no matter how hard we try.
Pretending otherwise is like making Super Mario the best man at your wedding. No matter how much time you spend with dear old Super Mario, he is going to disappoint in that role you chose for him. You need to let Super Mario be super in the ways that Mario is actually more-or-less super. Those are plentiful. And getting more so. These are the parts that require attention, while the AI mythos must be let go.
The New Aesthetic dusts off the Turing Test in a new Super Mario robot-vision guise, but it can’t get away with that attention-compelling metaphysical maneuver. That’s why it does smell of rubbish, and why the things it assembles look like a dustheap, instead of a coherent creative program to transform the way people perceive their reality.
The New Aesthetic can’t even get away with the seemingly mild error of claiming they’re “metaphorically” the same– that a “render ghost”, for instance, is metaphorically about being a sensitive creative among the hordes in East London who suddenly realizes how many cameras the cops have. No. The British cops have boatloads of surveillance cams, heaps of ‘em. Better cams all the time. That cop network isn’t going to magically become an art connoisseur. The aesthetics of surveillance cams are not value-free. Because aesthetics are not value-free.
So the New Aesthetic is really a design-fiction, it’s a postulated creative position. By metaphorically pretending that machines are our friends, we can see what they ‘see,’ and think what they ‘think’… We do get a payoff for that effort. We achieve creative results that we would not have gotten without that robot disguise.
I don’t dismiss this approach. That can work, more or less. Mark Pauline, for one, used to get tremendous effects by moodily staring at his performance robots, and trying to “do what they really want to do.” The robots didn’t really want to do what Mark darkly imagined they did, but Mark Pauline was, and is, a strong and widely influential artist.
But that’s merely a tactic — it’s a hoax, a put-on. I write fiction, so I have no inherent problem with pretending things, but an insincere aesthetics is bad for you. This insincerity is all the difference between a beautiful portrait of your spouse, and a beautiful portrait of your spouse repurposed as a deodorant ad. Same pixels on display, so why aren’t they both just as pretty?
If aesthetics could be hacked like code, then a beautiful rose, in the beak of a beautiful flamingo, flying in a beautiful sunset, would be 3X-beautiful. It isn’t. It never will be. You can’t make it be. That’s not the way the world works.
A sincere New Aesthetic would be a valiant, comprehensive effort to truly and sincerely engage with machine-generated imagery — not as a freak-show, a metaphor or a stimulus to the imagination — but *as it exists.* The real deal, down to the scraped-metal chip surface, if necessary.
Artists have used mechanical means of perception for a long time now. One doesn’t have to apologize for this nowadays, in the way Baudelaire used to wring his hands over daguerreotype cameras. That fight’s over. Everybody’s got hardware. People who can’t read have hardware. Every ivory tower we possess is saturated with hardware.
One doesn’t need to retreat into mystic obscurantism in order to understand that CERN is worthy of interest. CERN invented the World Wide Web. Contemporary artists don’t have to grasp at metaphors in order to log on to the CERN website. CERN built it, we live it now.
You can have all the machinic imagery out of CERN that you want, but the question is: what does it mean, how does it feel, what you do with it, how can you create? Is is beautiful, ugly, worthy, worthless, how is that good or bad, how does it change us?
It’s easy to sidle over to the subterranean cyclotron to take Instagrams of the many curios at CERN. I’ve seen them, they’re strange to me, but they’re not strange to the guys who built them. An aesthetics that’s overdependent on weirdness lacks ambition as an aesthetics. Weirdness is merely relative. Weirdness is never value-free.
A genuine New Aesthetic in CERN would ask for some aesthetic help there in CERN, in tackling one of the biggest problems in the history of aesthetics. Which is: why is some (but not all) mathematics “beautiful?”
The “beauty” of mathematics is a fact of creative life. The beauty of software code is also a fact of creative life. Math people and coders both know that those beauties are real, real like anvils. Yet that is a truly deep and wicked aesthetic problem. A modern aesthetic movement who could resolve that problem would have a grand achievement. Instead of merely collecting weird seashells on the vast Newtonian shore, they’d be able to state that they had carried out a huge land-reclamation project.
An intellectually honest New Aesthetic would have wider horizons than a glitch-hunt. It would manifest a friendlier attitude toward non-artistic creatives and their works. It would be kinder with non-artists, at ease with them, helpful to them, inclusive of them, of service to them. It’s not enough to adopt a grabbier attitude toward the inanimate products of their engineering.
I see some daylight in the general cultural situation. I was happy about the New Aesthetic panel, because it revealed things I had never seen. It was exciting because it touched something new, true and real.
The arts and sciences are, clearly, almost equally bewildered by their hardware now. The antique culture-rift of C. P. Snow doesn’t make much sense five decades later — not when sciences and the fine arts are getting identical public beatings from Lysenkoist know-nothings. Those abject talking-heads, abandoning charge of their machine-crazed economy.… Come home, artists and scientists; all is forgiven!
Our hardware is changing our lives far more profoundly than anything that we ever did to ourselves intentionally. We should heed the obvious there, and get used to that situation. We should befriend one another, under that reality. We should try to see what that means.
People have tried such things before. The Surrealists once valorized the “imagination of the unconscious.” But, as the Situationists pointed out, a generation later: the imagination of the unconscious is impoverished.
Valorizing machine-generated imagery is like valorizing the unconscious mind. Like Surrealist imagery, it is cool, weird, provocative, suggestive, otherworldly, but it is also impoverished.
That’s the big problem, as I see it: the New Aesthetic is trying to hack a modern aesthetic, instead of thinking hard enough and working hard enough to build one. That’s the case so far, anyhow. No reason that the New Aesthetic has to stop where it stands at this moment, after such a promising start. I rather imagine it’s bound to do otherwise. Somebody somewhere will, anyhow.
That is my thesis; that’s why I think this matters. When I left the room at the SXSW “New Aesthetic” panel, this is what concerned me most. I left with the conviction that something profound had been touched. Touched, although not yet grasped.
I’d suggest getting right after it.

In Response To Bruce Sterling's "Essay On The New Aesthetic"

Zigelbaum + Coelho, Six-Forty by Four-Eighty. Photo by James Medcraft.

Early Tuesday morning my friend Matt IM’d me with a link to Bruce Sterling’s “Essay on The New Aesthetic”, a 5,000-word rant about a (potentially) emerging new movement in visual culture.
“Is this a thing?” asked Matt. I was ashamed to admit, I had no clue. After all, wasn’t it my job to know about these things? How was it possible I wasn’t aware of this?
Quickly scanning Sterling’s dense, meandering essay, the best answer I could come up with was, “I think so?” Sterling appeared to be articulating a hunch many of us in the tech art community had been operating under for years and giving credence to a nascent term (ostensibly describing a fledgling movement?) that had little more than a popular Tumblr and a SXSW talk to legitimize it.
This was a good thing. To me, the idea that our dominant contemporary aesthetic is one that explores “a way of seeing that seems to reveal a blurring between ‘the real’ and ‘the digital,’ the physical and the virtual, the human and the machine” was kind of a no brainer. We’ve been covering projects that tackle this physical/digital grey area for years, but the recent proliferation of this aesthetic in mainstream culture is what seems to give it new weight and, according to Sterling, the makings of a new avant-garde.
Sterling had some shining praise and encouragement for the New Aesthetic, as well as some biting criticism (he seemed to want to give the movement some tough love, nudging it to grow into itself, to stop gawking at tech and grow some teeth). But what the article really did was turn something that was probably a thing but not fully articulated or acknowledged into a thing that everyone is talking about. So, thanks for that, Bruce.
To that end, we’ve asked a few of our tech art friends to weigh in on the New Aesthetic and Sterling’s assessment. Here’s what they had to say:
Marius Watz, “The Problem with Perpetual Newness”
Kyle Chayka, “The New Aesthetic: Going Native”
Jonathan Minard, “Straining to Envision the New Aesthetic”
Greg Borenstein, “What It’s Like To Be A 21st Century Thing”
James George, “The New Aesthetic Needs New Wranglers”
Kyle McDonald, “Personifying Machines, Machining Persons”

Wall drawing by Marius Watz.
By Marius Watz
My take on the New Aesthetic? On immediate reflection I’d say “good job” and “go easy on the drones”. But inevitably there is the jaded voice in the back of my head wanting to snarkily ask, “What took you so long?” Not “you” as in the particular group of people who curate and promote the New Aesthetic meme, but “you” as in (Western) society at large, the technology-addicted masses who want their Facebook (MTV, not so much) and smartphone bliss, yet manage to be continually surprised by the not-always-pleasant byproducts of their addiction.
There really is no excuse for being technoculture illiterate if you’re under 40 and living in the Western world. You can plead ignorance of the technological specifics, but not of the cultural effects produced by the gadgets and interfaces that have invaded your life. Technology is not something that happens to other people, nor can you escape it by hiding out in “the humanities.” To be human is to be technological.
Lacking a ubiquitous and intuitive understanding of the complex interactions between technology and human culture, sources like the New Aesthetic (NA) become golden. NA is an attempt at diagnosis of the most recent mutations of the human condition, a difficult task best attacked obliquely and from the flank, with subtle observations rather than head on with manifestos (which are not very New Aesthetic, by the way).
NA is part meme, part techno-ethnography and part Tumblr serendipity. Its art is juxtaposition: If we put this next to that and this other thing, surely a new understanding will emerge. And you know what? It works surprisingly well. Whether that success is the product of brilliant curation or the result of feverishly sign-deciphering minds scanning image after image for clues that might not be there is academic. If it works, it works.
“We need NA like we need weather vanes warning us of oncoming storms, because tech-driven cultural innovation has a nasty habit of becoming an inevitability with little regard for personal preference or even legal precedence.”
The “New” part is deceptive, however. Most of what NA offers up for examination is not all that new. Technologies like machine vision and geo-location are old by most standards. What is new is their integration into our lives to the point where we are bringing them to bed. Smartphone habituees will think nothing of installing a sleep-tracking app and putting their phone on the mattress, where accelerometers will presumably make sage observations about your quality of sleep. This is the new Aesthetic—human behavior augmented by technology as often as it is disrupted. The New Aesthetic is a sign saying “Translation Server Error” rather than “Post Office”. The New Aesthetic is faces glowing ominously as people walk down the street at night staring at their phones—or worse, their iPads.
We need NA like we need weather vanes warning us of oncoming storms, because tech-driven cultural innovation has a nasty habit of becoming an inevitability with little regard for personal preference or even legal precedence. Once conceived of, or even just scribbled on a napkin during a drunken startup crawl, it is as though they might as well always have existed.
Yes, GPS will come storming out of the wilderness survival gear catalogue and give your mother an incredibly increased action radius. Yes, computer GUI elements will sprout legs and appear lounging around your neighborhood as though they had always been there. Yes, digital glitch is as much of a cultural artifact as the graininess of film or the bad colors of Polaroids. And that guy on the corner with the World of Warcraft battleaxe replica 1 instantly looks at home from the moment that he appears. Yes, you think, now that I see it, it makes perfect sense.
1 That would be the artist Aram Bartholl, performing his “1H” intervention.
Marius Watz is an artist and sometime curator who spends most of his time in the future, drawing with machines.

Kyle McDonald’s remix of a 3D imaging file from the RGB+D project.
By Kyle Chayka
Bruce Sterling’s rousing essay on the New Aesthetic (the “eruption of the digital into the physical,” as the author summarizes) is split between two different points. In no uncertain language, Sterling tells us that the New Aesthetic is revolutionary: it’s “the attempted imposition on the public of a new way of perceiving reality” and “a catalogue of visible glitches in the here-and-now, for the here and for the now.” But he also tells us that we don’t hold the New Aesthetic up to a high enough standard and we don’t go far enough in proving its viability. The New Aesthetic is “trying to hack a modern aesthetic, instead of thinking hard enough and working hard enough to build one.”
What does it mean to hack, or deconstruct, or remix, an old aesthetic instead of creating something new? Sterling rightly notes that the New Aesthetic blog is less criticism than it is collage, a collection of moments that look New Aesthetic-y. As it stands, the genre is a collection of data points, observations on what is happening rather than meditations on how or why it is happening, or what we can do with it. The reason for this absence, as Sterling hints at but doesn’t point out outright, is that the New Aesthetic is not yet an actual aesthetic movement. It’s just reality.
The New Aesthetic isn’t Impressionism or Cubism. Revolutionary art is not shocking and provoking society, as it did in the case of Monet and Picasso. The New Aesthetic, as it exists in drone technology and Google Maps imagery and data surveillance, represents a ground-level change in our existence. Instead of shocking society, New Aesthetic art must respond to a shocked society and turn the changes we’re confronting into critical artistic creation. Artists are only just starting to take the raw material of the New Aesthetic and aestheticize it in a conscious, intelligent way.
“The New Aesthetic, as it exists in drone technology and Google Maps imagery and data surveillance, represents a ground-level change in our existence. Instead of shocking society, New Aesthetic art must respond to a shocked society and turn the changes we’re confronting into critical artistic creation.”
What we need to do now is to go native, to stop gathering data points and start making things in the intrinsic language of New Aesthetic. Here’s my forecast for fulfilling the potential of this new medium: We will not just observe how machines act and perceive, but integrate how they act and perceive into our own sensory experiences and creative processes. As the digital and the physical move closer and closer, that combination will eventually look less like a hybrid and more like a united whole, the new aesthetic reality.
Artists are already undergoing this process, embracing the New Aesthetic as a contextual seedbed rather than a label. 3D imaging and printing is taking the machine aesthetic into physical space. Pop-up guerrilla computer networks are modulating our local surroundings. Designers are creating fashion to fight facial recognition software.
Sterling argues that we can’t depend on machines and code for our definition of beauty. He’s right, rehashing 8-bit all over again is never going to get us anywhere. But as the latest generation of artists, writers, creatives, and civilians, we aren’t letting machines pioneer the New Aesthetic avant garde: We already live it.
Kyle Chayka is the assistant editor of Artinfo.com and a writer on art, culture, and technology. You can follow him on Twitter or Tumblr.

Golan Levin’s Eyecode, a mosaic of eyes captured from viewers interacting with his eye-tracking software to illustrate the metaphor of Argus.
By Jonathan Minard
Visualizing our culture as a mythical being, it would look something like the god, Argus, gazing in a mirror: each of its hundred eyes straining to resolve parts of a fragmented self-image. It is impossible for us to get any perspective on our digital universe, as we all suffer from a myopic condition; glued to cluttered screens, staring at pictures taken with tiny cameras. The propagation of vision technologies has only compounded the problem.
The New Aesthetic brings one layer of the bigger picture into focus. Charting a major trend in design, inspired by robot-vision and computer-generated imagery, James Bridle’s tumblr archive supplies more than enough data for the theory. Responding to this monumental collage, Bruce Sterling brings a new vocabulary, and a much needed critical voice, to the conversation.
As a master of rhetoric, Sterling names the trends we had not before considered and in doing so shapes our thinking. He tinkers with language, hacking together existing terms to fashion widgets for our use.
I’d like to use this space to muse on a few of the words and concepts invoked by Sterling in his “Essay on the New Aesthetic.”
Scifi Robot-Vision Aura
Machines that perceive have a numinous presence.
A personal anecdote: One summer night in 2005, cutting across a parking lot by Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute in Pittsburgh, I crossed paths with a driverless humvee weaving through cones on a test course. I became chillingly aware of some entity—a ghost behind the wheel of this machine—perceiving me as an obstacle with its laser-vision (LIDAR). The red hummer (a contestant in the DARPA Grand Challenge to design a car that drives itself) had a cyclopean eye mounted on a gimbal for scanning its environment.
If you ever doubted that computer vision algorithms have an aura, watch the web documentary Robot Readable World: a montage of pattern recognition software at work. This mesmerizingly beautiful footage may change your mind. The New Aesthetic revels in a disquieting flavor of the digital sublime.
Network-Assembled Heap
A sprawling crowd-sourced repository of digital ephemera: the New Aesthetic would not have taken shape as a relevant concept without the existence of the New Aesthetic tumblr.
The content of their manifesto exists primarily as a database of images. It is easy to critique the culture of sharing as a proliferator of vacant memes. Yet, this has proven itself as the most efficient way for networked intelligences talk to each other, and collectively generate meaning.
“The tools we make shape culture. The culture of technology is a human culture and a human experience. Reconciling with our inventions, we embrace the stylized pixel-goo as a reflection of ourselves.”
Developer and blogger James Bridle is not a lone visionary. He and his social network of tech-literate British designers swarmed the internet for content and gathered it in one place, curating links using all the social media tools at their fingertips. Sterling calls their work a “collectively-intelligent theory-object” of “shareable concepts.” So much of the actual content of the New Aesthetic is a Duchampian appropriation of computer vision demos and surveillance photos snapped by drones now part of this greater lexicon.
Image aggregation is a new form of visual research and trend-spotting reveals salient patterns in the visual culture of the internet. Through this collective looking and sharing, a scene of cultural commentators can widely disseminate a perspective.
Machines are Never Your Friend
By attributing superhuman intelligence to machines, we forget that they are still dumb tools invented by people for people—this is Sterling’s most basic point.
As Nietzsche declared “God is Dead,” Sterling will be one the first voices of our era to refute the existence of A.I.: “Robots lack cognition. They lack perception. They lack intelligence… They lack aesthetic judgment.” He urges us to abandon our atavistic worship of false robot idols.
Many roboticists and computer scientists will take issue with this harsh put-down of machine intelligence, still in its infancy. Yet, in regard to art and design, it is true that machines are not (yet) the creators—we are.
The fact that your laptop is arguably “less intelligent than a goldfish” does not stop us from collaborating with machines to access new experiences and augment our creative capacity. Interacting with computers, with the world of information and each other through these interfaces has irreversibly transformed us.
The tools we make shape culture. The culture of technology is a human culture and a human experience. Reconciling with our inventions, we embrace the stylized pixel-goo as a reflection of ourselves. An aesthetic based on computational systems and their associated visual memes has become fashionable and beautiful, indicating a broader acceptance of digital prostheses as essential to contemporary life. That integration of visual technologies into our cultural lexicon will only continue.
Jonathan Minard (@deepspeedmedia) is a new media documentarian, and fellow in the STUDIO for Creative Inquiry. Current film and journalism projects focus on visionary experiments with technology. He has collaborated with James George and Alexander porter on the development of a new RGB+Depth format for making movies with the kinect.

Adam Harvey, CV Dazzle.
By Greg Borenstein
While it was heartening to see Bruce Sterling’s enthusiasm for the New Aesthetic, as a fan and contributor to the project, the part of his essay I found most stimulating was his critique of the movement. In the many responses to Sterling accumulating around the web, you can see it forcing New Aestheticians to think more deeply about what the movement means. This essay is the tentative product of my having done similarly.
The core of his complaint is that the visual objects Bridle has assembled under the New Aesthetic banner don’t add up to a coherent philosophy. As he puts it, “a heap of eye-catching curiosities don’t constitute a compelling worldview."
I believe that Sterling is wrong. I believe that the New Aesthetic is actually striving towards a fundamentally new way of imagining the relations between things in the world. To convince you of this, I’ll make a case that the New Aesthetic strongly resonates with a recent movement in philosophy called Object-Oriented Ontology and that establishing a closer alliance with OOO might be a way to increase the precision of the New Aesthetic vocabulary and enrich its process by pointing towards new modes of imagining its objects of fascination.
In order to fully explain this, I have to tell you a little bit about Object-Oriented Ontology itself, which is notoriously hard to summarize. But before putting you through that, I want to try to articulate the New Aesthetic in OOO terms so that you’ll know why it’s worth doing. Here goes:
The New Aesthetic is a visible eruption of the mutual empathy between us and a class of new objects that are native to the 21st century. It consists of visual artifacts we make to help us imagine the inner lives of our digital objects and also of the visual representations produced by our digital objects as a kind of pigeon language between their inaccessible inner lives and ours. It’s the trace of interaction designers, surveillance drones, gesture recognition systems, fashion designers, image compression techniques, artists, CCTV networks, and filmmakers all “wondering about one another without getting confirmation."
That last phrase is a quotation from Alien Phenomenology: or What It’s Like to be a Thing by game designer and philosopher Ian Bogost (most famously, the creator of Cow Clicker). In that book, Bogost cooks up his own flavor of OOO philosophy and then (amazingly for a book of philosophy) outlines methods for putting it into action by making things.
Bogost also composed what I think is the best layman’s definition of Object-Oriented Ontology:
“Ontology is the philosophical study of existence. Object-oriented ontology puts things at the center of this study. Its proponents contend that nothing has special status, but that everything exists equally – plumbers, cotton, bonobos, DVD players, and sandstone, for example.[…] OOO draws attention to things at all scales (from atoms to alpacas, bits to blinis), and ponders their nature and relations with one another as much with ourselves.”
As an artist, technologist, and designer I find this to be an extraordinarily exciting set of goals for a philosophy. OOO focuses philosophy on the task of understanding exactly the material of my work: objects and their inter-relations.
So, what, in particular, does OOO have to say about objects? How does it characterize them? Here’s the 15 second summary (if you want to start exploring OOO in more depth, Cultural Technologies’ podcast with Graham Harman, OOO’s founding father, is a good place to start):
Objects withdraw. While they can form relations with other objects, they can’t know each other completely. And an object’s identity is not exhausted by its relations with other objects. There is always some part of each object that remains inaccessible.
Given that objects exist, but that we can never fully know them, OOO advocates a philosophical process of “speculation” about, as Bogost says, “what it’s like to be a thing”. In fact OOO is part of a larger philosophical movement who’s name, Speculative Realism, derives from this very process of imaginative empathy. Bogost ends the first chapter of Alien Phenomenology with a vivid evocation of this process of speculation:
“Our job is to amplify the black noise of objects to make the resonant frequencies of the stuffs inside them hum in credibly satisfying ways. Our job is to write the speculative fictions of these processes, of their unit operations. Our job is to get our hands dirty with grease, juice, gunpowder, and gypsum. Our job is to go where everyone has gone before, but where few have bothered to linger.”
If you substitute, sensors, pixels, image features, and guidance algorithms for “grease, juice, gunpowder, and gypsum” you’d have the perfect New Aesthetic call-to-arms: to dig out what it’s like to be a thing born of our contemporary technological era, a New Thing, and to make that as vivid as possible by amplifying the particular frequency of “black noise” these New Things emit.
Now, let’s return to Sterling’s essay. Sterling characterizes the New Aesthetic through the imagery that it accumulates, most visibly on Birdle’s New Aesthetic Tumblr:
“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.”
In making this list, Sterling privileges the visible objects of New Aesthetics over the invisible and algorithmic ones. New Aesthetics is not simply an aesthetic fetish of the texture of these images, but an inquiry into the objects that make them. It’s an attempt to imagine the inner lives of the native objects of the 21st century and to visualize how they imagine us.
“New Aesthetics is not simply an aesthetic fetish of the texture of these images, but an inquiry into the objects that make them. It’s an attempt to imagine the inner lives of the native objects of the 21st century and to visualize how they imagine us.”
Moreover, as Object-Oriented thinkers, New Aestheticians are interested not just in the significance of face detection algorithms, surveillance drones, gesture recognition systems, image compression techniques, CCTV networks, book-scanning operations, satellite maps, and digital fabrication schemes for humans but they’re also obsessed with how these new 21st century objects impact the things we design and cohabitate with. They want to know what CCTV means for social networks, what book scanning means for iOS apps, and what face detection means for fashion. And again these objects are not just interesting to each other as a set of constraints and affordances for the objects’ human makers but for the hidden inner lives of the objects themselves throughout their existence.
I think the quintessential New Aesthetic project is Adam Harvey’s CV Dazzle.
CV Dazzle is “camouflage from computer vision," a set of hair, makeup, and fashion designs meant to prevent their human wearer from being detected by face detection algorithms. In order to create CV Dazzle, Harvey had to develop systems that let him visualize how face detection algorithms see people’s faces. He wrote software that let him slow down the face detection process and display its internal state. The images and videos he produced in the process are not simple appropriations of the visual texture of face detection algorithm, but tools for speculating about what it would be like to be one.
Greg Borenstein is an artist and technologist in New York. He’s currently a Resident Researcher at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program and recently the author of Making Things See: 3D Vision with Kinect, Processing, Arduino and Makerbot from O’Reilly. You can also find him on Twitter.

Steven Pippin, Point Blank.
By James George
Bruce Sterling’s essay on the New Aesthetic is uncharacteristically positive for the skeptical futurist. Renowned to a growing crowd of technology artists and science fiction fanatics, when Sterling says he sees something “true and real,” people pay attention. This week he bestowed his hope in the collective hunch held by this small group of British designers and creatives who feed the New Aesthetic tumblr a stream of technology addled graphic byproducts.
The tumblr is characterized by imagery sitting on the virtual/physical border. From pixelated T-shirt graphics to 3D printed fractals, the archive has gathered enough critical mass to spark the question: what exactly is this emerging aesthetic?
In addressing how we should define the New Aesthetic, Sterling’s essay leaves us with fewer options than with which we started. He critically dismisses glitches, render ghosts, and retro 80’s pixel art as empty. The challenge is to develop the hunch into something mature, something that is more avant-garde and less ADHD. He’s giving the movement some tough love.
The crux of what he thinks is interesting comes down to this: we are surrounded by new hardware and it’s doing some unpredictable and provocative things. Our technological world is producing some fascinating imagery that tells the story of how our lives are changing in profound ways. If the New Aesthetic is going to be the narrator of that story, it needs some focus.
If artists and technologists want to be the wranglers of Sterling’s “cat herd” there are a few problems with their current modus operandi. Sterling’s critique is not subtle: stop gawking sci-fi robot-vision screen captures, slapping labels on them and presenting it as an aesthetic. That inclination is a natural first step towards understanding. In order to make meaningful progress, creatives need to invest in learning how these systems function and take a critical stance. Doing this will require closing Google Chrome for a few hours and picking up a book on machine vision. Or befriending some non-artists outside of the creative class. People already versed in machine language need to be convinced that the tumblr is onto something.
“Our technological world is producing some fascinating imagery that tells the story of how our lives are changing in profound ways. If the New Aesthetic is going to be the narrator of that story, it needs some focus.”
Consider when an aspiring New Aesthetician stumbles onto a website of demonstration videos for some next generation surveillance system and responds “Here is some ‘New Aesthetic!” Traditionally, they could just harvest the videos into another collection, repeating Timo’s Robot Readable World computer vision amalgamation. In this scenario the surveillance company has no idea that they are contributing to an ongoing dialogue and the appropriator has no influence over those images. They are capturing specimens to fill a robot zoo.
For the New Aesthetic to have a critical influence, the gap between artist and technologist needs to be bridged. In the example above, the artist could contact the chief technologist describing their fascination. They could order the camera, plug it in, point it at the house cat or a make sci-fi master piece with it’s data. In doing so, the fascinating tracker symbols will dance in response to an input its engineers had not anticipated. Deeper insights will be revealed resulting in the potential for a more focused aesthetic understanding of our technological environment.
Sterling’s call to action mirrors the thesis of media theorist Vilém Flusser’s 1983 book “Towards a Philosophy of Photography." Defined therein, the experimental photographer is one who breaks the camera to get new undiscovered imagery from it. In doing so the artist “creates a space for human intention in a world dominated by apparatuses.” What Flusser called an experimental photographer we may now call a New Aesthetician. They are the curious tinkerers who take nothing at face value, reinterpreting the technological landscape as a tool to tell the story of the world right now.
James George is a Brooklyn based media artist and software developer.

MIchael Jackson doing the robot during a 1973 performance of ‘Dancing Machine’ on Soul Train.
By Kyle McDonald
A number of the criticisms in “An Essay on the New Aesthetic” are very welcome. For example, it seems clear that “accumulative” network culture has made the New Aesthetic metaphysically incoherent compared to a more traditional critical model. And I’ve never understood how “render ghosts” fit in. They were missing from the original ‘mood-board for unknown products’ post and have been mostly absent on Tumblr.
But most of the other complaints stem from a limited interpretation of what the New Aesthetic could be. Sterling complains about how AI is a failure, and that computers “lack cognition.” That if the New Aesthetic is about “seeing through the eyes of machines,” then we’re expecting machines to “make sound aesthetic judgements.”
But it’s obvious that machines can’t make aesthetic judgements, and I don’t think the New Aesthetic is ignoring this in favor of a helpful design fiction.
I think the New Aesthetic is not about treating machines like ourselves, “projecting our own qualities onto phenomena that we built.” The New Aesthetic is about treating ourselves like machines, and falling in love with the emergent forms of purely functional design. If Postmodernism rejects the functionally-driven design of Modernism, the New Aesthetic is a “Semimodernism”: it embraces the formal results of functional design but ignores the motivation.
We aren’t making voxel sculptures because we want to “[make] the machines our friends,” we’re making them because we think they’re beautiful. And they’re exciting, or interesting, or, at least, easy to make. The computer didn’t make these judgements, and we’re not claiming that a computer would “like” the work. We just mined the design constraint from the engineered devices that permeate our contemporary life. The low-poly shoe was not designed with graphics card memory optimization in mind, it’s just embracing the limitations that we’re familiar with and have grown to love.
“We aren’t making voxel sculptures because we want to ‘[make] the machines our friends,’ we’re making them because we think they’re beautiful. And they’re exciting, or interesting, or, at least, easy to make. The computer didn’t make these judgements, and we’re not claiming that a computer would ‘like’ the work. We just mined the design constraint from the engineered devices that permeate our contemporary life.”
The New Aesthetic observes the byproducts of functionally-driven design and appropriates the emergent aesthetic. Not because the machines “picked” it, but because we see the common themes, and find them beautiful. We see the square pixels, the 8-bit color palettes, and we embrace them not for their function but for their beauty.
This starts to make sense of Sterling’s other major criticisms, regarding glitch, satellite views and “retro” graphics. Half of the New Aesthetic Tumblr seems to be about identifying themes that emerge from functionalist design (especially computational design). They sit there collecting dust, just waiting to be appropriated. Then the other half of the entries are about labeling the eventual appropriations as such. A glitch isn’t inherently “New Aesthetic,” but it certainly becomes that when appropriated. Just like the voxel sculptures, glitch revels in the visual result of a functional system purely for its aesthetic merit.
Similarly, satellite views maybe be ancient, but when the patterns of circular irrigation start to remind us of our familiar pixel grid, we make connections to visual design. We borrow the aesthetic of satellite views for our work not because we’ve been counseled by the machine, but because we have personally judged the results of this functional system as beautiful.
The New Aesthetic favors the results of functional design as aesthetic. In this sense, the New Aesthetic goes much deeper than raster image processing, much less machine vision.

The New Aesthetic Revisited: The Debate Continues!

Julia Kaganskiy May 04, 2012
An image from the Depth Editor Debug series by James George and Alexander Porter.
Over the course of the past month, a certain corner of the internet has been ablaze with heated discussion about the New Aesthetic. It all started with a Tumblr from designer and author James Bridle, but things didn’t really get going until an essay from Bruce Sterling catalyzed the conversation. The essay prompted dozens of responses, including a few of our own, all attempting to suss out just what, exactly, this “New Aesthetic” was, how much attention it deserved, how seriously it should be taken, and what, exactly, it all meant, if anything.
We’ve been following the conversation closely, which has spanned everything from feminist critique of the machine gaze to electric anthropology to alien toaster pastry to cats (this is the internet, after all). Point is, the dialog is varied and is drawing in voices from a diverse range of disciplines that includes artists, designers, technologists, science fiction writers, philosophers and art historians. That in itself seems to lend the topic some semblance of significance.
If nothing else, I think one thing that’s clear about the New Aesthetic is that it is a thing that is happening in popular-tech culture today, whether or not we want to call it such. As technology evolves, our visual language evolves along with it, and as such, the New Aesthetic isn’t necessarily something located within this particular moment, but more so a moving target that seems to have gained some sense of cohesion at this particular moment thanks to the rapid pervasiveness of computing devices in our daily lives. The visual language that it puts forth will become engrained in our cultural lexicon and will inform our understanding of the world around us, as well as the way we shape that world moving forward. Movement or not, that much we can be certain of.
And so, in light of the New Aesthetic debates that continue to wage on all over the web, we’ve once again assembled a chorus of voices to weigh in on the matter—this time, with an eye towards demonstrating the conversation’s diversity. From serious to snarky, they’ve all got something smart to say. Enjoy and check out our previous posts on the New Aesthetic here and here. Track the conversation on Twitter with the #NewAesthetic hashtag.
Carla Gannis, “A Code for the Numbers to Come”
Jamie Zigelbaum and Marcelo Coelho, “The Rasterized Snake Eats Its Analog Tail”
Rahel Aima, “Breaking the Fourth Wall: Duende and the New Aesthetic”
Madeline Ashby, “Surveillance is Symptomatic of Magical Thinking. So is Anthropomorphism.”
Hrag Vartanian, “A Not-So-New Aesthetic, or Another Attempt at Technological Triumphalism”

Salvador Dali, Gala Contemplating the Mediterranean Sea Which at Twenty Meters Becomes the Portrait of Abraham Lincoln, 1976
By Carla Gannis
I own a robot and four computers. I check out news on Kurzweil and the Singularity every couple of days. When James Bridle posts voxels and render ghosts and glitch photography and 8-bit GIFs as signifiers of a new lens through which we see and negotiate “reality,” I get it and I like it. Although I am too old to qualify as a digital native, Bridle’s “state of things” feels natural to me, more natural in fact than mosaics made with tesserae, points made with paint, and looms operating via binary punch cards, i.e. some of the historical aggregates of the New Aesthetic. The multiplicity of voices arising in recognition of NA’s legitimacy encourages me, more than most trending topics, to join the dialogue, contributing my voice as an artist and educator focused on digital media, and a thoroughly bionic woman.
In my attempts to thread an opinion into the discourse spooling around the New Aesthetic—a disappointingly stuffy name for a potentially vanguard development in the tweeted and post(ed)-Modern world—I find I am most fascinated by the porous relationships between artificial & natural, digital & analogue, systematized & hybrid created by and living within the New Aesthetic. The New Aesthetic has the potential not only to confound, but collapse these binaries, and others, completely. It is that potential that excites me, as a citizen of the 21st century, and a feminist who rejects the essentialism of that ism’s second wave.
Which leads me to, glimmering from my bookshelf in its metallic dust jacket, cyber-feminist Sadie Plant’s book Zeros + Ones, Digital Women + The New Technoculture (1997). In Zeros… Plant recounts the life of Lady Ada Lovelace, notable for writing the first computer program in 1842. Lovelace is far too often, in some circles, a starting point for conversations on the history of digital culture, but the apposite Plant/Lovelace quote below forecasts some potentialities I see in the New Aesthetic:
“She knew her work might have some influence inconceivable to her own time: ‘Perhaps none of us can estimate how great,’ she wrote. ‘Who can calculate to what it might lead; if we look beyond the present condition especially?’ And when she reflected on her own footnotes, she was ‘thunderstruck by the power of the writing. It is especially unlike a woman’s style surely,’ she wrote ‘but neither can I compare it with any man’s exactly.’ It was instead a code for the numbers to come.” (p 256)
At the moment, however, New Aesthetic seems to be all potential and style. When Bridle speaks of styles that didn’t exist in the previous world, patterns on clothes that are now pixilated when once they would have been gingham for example, I react with a flat “gee wiz." More interesting to me than fashionability is the neutrality of those pixels. They are dislocated from culture, gender and race.
It is hard for me to imagine a Hindi farmer wearing gingham, for example, or a Western hedge fund manager wearing a Dashiki. And if these two are male I don’t see either of them in a Laura Ashley floral pattern, but I can see both of these humans wearing pixels in the not so distant future, because pixels are ubiquitous and functional patterns embedded in the operations of our daily lives, crossing class lines, borders and most other divides. Pixels aren’t even age appropriate these days. So in “waving to the machines” and seeing through their objective eyes, perhaps there is something more humanizing than dehumanizing in the endeavors of the New Aesthetic, something finally equalizing.
I also suspect many mid-career “new media” artists who have suffered dislocation anxiety particularly embrace NA’s main premise, the “eruption of the digital into the physical," as it shatters a false dichotomy—object vs. screen—that many have been grappling with in their studios for at least a decade or two. Or three or four. Artists have been making art on computers inside and outside of the mainstream art world for some time.
This leads to other events on the horizon, artists working not only between the gaps of art and life but in between the gaps of ones and zeros and not being disenfranchised for doing so. Although there is the danger of the New Aesthetic representing only so much cool digital eye candy, NA being more than screen deep is significant, and necessary.
In order for the New Aesthetic to reach its vitalistic potential, it is incumbent upon its creatives—artists, designers, developers, et al—to keep their human skins on. Janet Murray, an early developer of humanities computing, first made the case for the expressive potentials of computing in 1997 with the publication of Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace.

“We must return to the question raised by Aldous Huxley at the moment movies began to speak: Will the stories brought to us by new representational technologies ‘mean anything’ in the same way that Shakespeare’s plays mean something, or will they be ‘told by an idiot’?” (p 273)
The incomprehensibly vast fields of data we can lay claim to as creative fodder, by manipulating or in collaboration with machines (depending on your point of view) can result in the metaphoric wasteland or garden. Neither outcome will be engendered by our “new” technologies failing, but in our losing touch with our “old” biological technologies, the human brains (and bodies) that have given birth to ideas, constructions and sentiments for aesthetic reflection.
However, and by no means am I the first to point this out, it is problematic, at least in its manifestation at this point, to stake claims on the New Aesthetic as some sort of “revolutionary movement” heroically, defiantly, or nihilistically. Kyle Chayka articulates this point in The New Aesthetic: Going Native, “[it] is not yet an actual aesthetic movement. It’s just reality.” It is embedded in who we are. We live it. Chayka points out that unlike past revolutionary art movements, the New Aesthetic is not “shocking society” but is a response to a “shocked society.”
I agree with Chayka, there is very little shock factor in the New Aesthetic. Perhaps because I am a Gen X’er steeped in post-modern irony and deconstruction, it doesn’t shock me to not be shocked. But “shocked society” as a new defining aspect of the 2010s? We are overwhelmed, hyper-mediated, simultaneously more epistemologically connected and ontologically isolated than in past epochs, yet are we more shocked than, say, society at the turn of the 20th Century? Mary Flanagan in her essay “Play, Participation, and Art: Blurring the Edges” summarizes the shock and awe of the 1910s: “in the midst of war-torn Europe, these (Dada) artists shared a belief that such a culture that originated the horrors of war could not appreciate, indeed, did not deserve art.” (p 90)
Dada shocked a shocked society.

Glitching internet urinal by cityofsound and Marcel Duchamp, Urinal, 1917
Margot Lovejoy in Context Providers: Conditions of Meaning in Media Arts writes, “artists, then in the context of that epoch, were driven by a multitude of larger questions and goals:” and she quotes Lev Manovich, “[T]hese represented absolute values and spiritual life…representing the dynamism of the contemporary city and the experience of war; representing the concepts of Einstein’s relativity theory; translating principles of engineering into visual communication; and so on…” (p 22)
Cubism, Surrealism, Constructivism, Abstract Expressionism all represented a “new” aesthetic influenced by science, psychology, optics and metaphysics, and their assertion on the world was steeped in revolutionary zeal.
But the 20th Century authentic shock of the new seems to not have carried over into the 21st. Perhaps shock is no longer a variable in the art and cultural equation, no matter how nostalgic some of us still are (myself included) for artistic subversion as revolution.
My point is, as creatives, as those who dally in first world problematics like NA, are we still capable of being shocked or shocking? The intersections of art & technology, the combined forces of “natural” human beings and “artificial” intelligent operators creating a hybrid world of novel experience thrills me.
Of the specific genres that Bridle selects as examples of NA, data visualization feels the most like a new(ish) aesthetic to me. But I have specific determinants for data vis being a visionary form from a humanities perspective. Can it be more than interestingly aggregated information? Does it make me feel something, think something I really have never thought before, care about its existence on the planet, as messenger, harbinger or as a beautiful wondrous resonant thing?
As it stands, the New Aesthetic succeeds in keeping us up-to-date, but there needs to be more. In 1976 Dali’s Lincoln expressed a pixellated future Dali had not seen. A movement can not merely catalogue what currently exists, it is defined by the future(s) it envisions.
Carla Gannis is a Brooklyn-based interdisciplinary artist and Assistant Chair of the Department of Digital Arts at Pratt Institute. @carla_gannis

Pulp-Based Computing, developed at XS Labs.
By Jamie Zigelbaum and Marcelo Coelho
Our studio operates from the perspective that all things are both digital and analog, equally existing in a sea of experience and agency. The new artworks piquing our interests today don’t do so because of false dichotomies, but rather because they let us experience the world in revealing and new ways.
We make art to understand, embed, and communicate contemporary experience. Recently, we’ve been evaluating the differential absorption of IR light by hemoglobin to infer respiratory cycles; controlling twisted nematic liquid crystal from Arduino; designing touchless interfaces using transparent conductive coatings; and developing software and techniques for ablating micron-scale graphics using an Excimer laser. Operating at this scale, where the naked eye is rendered useless by the precision of our machines, it becomes clear that we are poised for a future where the analog and digital dichotomy is nothing more than an exercise in perspective taking.
Ours are not the materials and tools that gave birth to the Industrial Revolution. They are the product of new information technologies that are giving rise to new aesthetic experiences. Materials available to artists today include wood, CR-39, ribosomes, 4chan, natural language processing, and self-assembly. The possibility space for experiences emanating from this palette far surpasses that of the space predisposed by Jacquard’s textile arrays.
Two years ago we made an interactive lighting installation called Six-Forty by Four-Eighty. We made it for a very specific purpose: to communicate the potentials for visual representation in a world of amorphous computing. Our future is a place where computation will break from the golden jails of laptop and mobile phone and seep chaotically into every corner of the world around us until it is so diffuse that we realize it was actually there the whole time. We could have communicated this speculation by making a film, writing a story, painting a canvas, or choreographing a ballet, but we didn’t. Instead, we used consumer electronics—the same media that is giving rise to the very future under examination. We used this media not because it is new, but because we wanted to do more than just describe our vision: we wanted to manifest it so that people could experience it firsthand.
Crafting contemporary experience requires the combined efforts of all of us: scientists, designers, philosophers, engineers, artists, etc. If artists don’t learn how to actually implement technologies, such as machine learning or hydraulic fracturing, they will not be able to manipulate and understand them deeply enough to reveal their farthest edge states. Without the artist, our culture cannot metabolize the latent possibilities inherent in the world around us.
New Aesthetic brands experiences emerging from the interplay between pixel, bitmap file format, charge-coupled device, machine vision toolkit, networked computer, human, and drone. An interesting palette by any right, but if it will serve to define our current moment we must expand it beyond shared images. And we should do that since there is indeed something new happening worthy of a better understanding.
Sixty years have passed since Shannon and Tukey coined the word bit at Bell Labs down the hall from where Bardeen and Brattain invented the point-contact transistor. These innovations mark the origin of a bubble of alterity that has only now begun to recede. As computers have pervaded deep into our daily lives, our culture has embraced them. It has taken time, but we are now getting comfortable enough with computing that we can see past our own reflection in it. What’s new is that our prostheses have stopped chaffing and we can finally enjoy stretching them, and as we do, all the materials within our grasp are rendered anew.
It’s not only that humans and computers are combining agencies and creating interesting new images, it’s that an inchoate realization is in process: there is no dichotomy between human and machine, analog and digital.
Zigelbaum + Coelho is a studio founded by Jamie Zigelbaum and Marcelo Coelho. Operating at the intersection of design, technology, science, and art, their work utilizes physical, computational, and cultural materials in the service of creating new, but fundamentally human, experiences.

The Infinite Cat Project, Cat #1721.
By Rahel Aima
As the furor around the New Aesthetic unfurls, one of the more common gripes has been that there’s nothing very new about it. That its objects, while native to the last few decades, are not new so much as just newly catalogued. That it’s just another emergent movement or technological development that claims to have reinvented the wheel and created new ways of seeing—immaculately, as if from Zeus’ own forehead—yet mostly rehashes what has come before.
In a way, I agree. The cast of characters has rotated, but the New Aesthetic is undeniably a continuation of cinematic and literary tradition. This is not a bad thing.
In an early response, Matthew Battles compellingly framed the New Aesthetic in terms of ‘pathetic fallacy,’ or an attribution of human-like emotions to inanimate objects. It’s hard to argue with, yet equally applies to our relations with just about any technology. Just look at the way we baby our laptops’ temperature tantrums, ascribing nuance to each sulky bleep and whir. As a literary device or effect, then, it seems fairly bankrupt. Instead, perhaps we should compare the New Aesthetic to the ceremonial breaking of the fourth wall. It happened with Brechtian theatre, and later Godard and the New Wave of French cinema. A few decades later, the age of confessional media and YouTube rants dawned, and what was once a radical rupture of boundaries began to feel pretty old hat. But then the New Aesthetic and the machines got involved.
First, however, rewind back to that moment in Annie Hall that everyone loves to cite. You know the one: Woody Allen, sick of hearing a man prattling ostentatiously in line just ahead of him, gets into an argument about Marshall McLuhan, who just happens to be loitering conveniently at set left. Allen pulls McLuhan into the shot to back up his point, and then turns to the audience to complain and kvetch. The cinematic spell is broken, and our relation to the medium is laid bare. Immersion within the narrative is replaced by an awareness of watching, and being watched. Reached out and spoken to, even.
Today, machines and other unknown objects are similarly breaking the fourth wall and shattering the artifice of seamless technology. They’re turning to face us, and making pidgin efforts to communicate—with strangled sounds and cryptic markings—and waving like a Sims character who wants, no, needs something from us. Windows OSes have arguably been doing it for years, with modal dialog boxes that are swatted away as quickly as the spambots who really, really want to sell us Viagra. And these new performers have made a further leap to a new kind of reality media: a curated Tumblr. As with the technique’s previous iterations, the New Aesthetic’s breaking of the fourth wall forces us to reevaluate our tenuous relations with the characters and performers featured onscreen.
Yet somehow people don’t seem to get as excited about pictures of machines looking at things as they do about pictures of Kim Jong Il doing the very same.
Let’s return to the paradoxically endearing Woody Allen. He’s all awkward elbows and insecurities: neurotic, crotchety, and above all, credibly vulnerable. People feel like they can empathise with him. Or consider the responses to the Mew Aesthetic—surprisingly heavy on the relief. Cats with interior monologues, interacting with technology? Endearing and relatable. Less welcomed are the New Aesthetic’s drones, chatbots, and other digital analogues. Rather, its featured performers seem to produce an uneasy discomfort in many. Their inner lives are inaccessible to us, rendering them cold, alien, inhuman. Suspicious, untrustworthy, and as Bruce Sterling insists, never our friends. Perhaps it still boils down to a distrust of the possibly sentient machine.
Accordingly, we keep these new objects even closer than friends—intimately in our pockets, and always within sight. Their biggest crime just might, however, be a lack of soul and authentic-feeling feelings; a lack of the curious quality that Federico Garcia Lorca termed duende.
In On the Theory and Play of the Duende, Lorca identifies three forms of inspiration: the muse, the angel and the duende. Of these, the duende is the form most identified with death. It is variously understood as a visceral realization of mortality, a primal charismatic force that inhabits the performer, and the most authentic, heightened expression of human feeling. It’s there in the motions of bullfighters and flamenco dancers; as well as in the “black sounds” of Leonard Cohen or swampy blues or sullen Bay Area punk. Or in Goya’s bitumens and the frenzied Sufi mystics’ cries of ‘Allah! Allah’ which whirls into the ‘Olé!’ of the bullfight, and might be one and the same. Raw and fragile, and a little crushed. As described by Lorca, it is ‘the buried spirit of saddened Spain,’ and ‘all that has dark sounds, has duende.’ He says:
“The great artists of Southern Spain, Gypsy or flamenco, singers dancers, musicians, know that emotion is impossible without the arrival of the duende. They might deceive people into thinking they can communicate the sense of duende without possessing it, as authors, painters, and literary fashion-makers deceive us every day, without possessing duende: but we only have to attend a little, and not be full of indifference, to discover the fraud, and chase off that clumsy artifice.”
While all nations and arts—visual as well as sonic—are ostensibly capable of duende, it requires living flesh. It’s essentially an embodied force—the soul in combat with bodily mortality. It’s also inextricably linked to a very human vulnerability: Lorca maintains that the duende only approaches when it senses the possibility of death. Moral and sexual transgressions have lost their cache; to transgress the human today would be to attain some kind of transhumanist mortality, become a machine. All of which is to suggest that duende is something that these new inhuman actors are, by all appearances, incapable of.
But this is where I want to disagree. The glitches, pixelation, errors, Blue Screens of Death and other slippages characterised by the New Aesthetic? They are signs of machines decaying, breaking down, and above all showing us their vulnerable side. We’re invited to question their and our own mortality, and to interrogate the blurry line between human flesh and machineflesh (and comparative corruptions). Which is to say, these eruptions of duende just might be the closest that machines can get to an almost human emotion in the age of mechanical reblogging. We might never understand or share their experiences, but the unknown objects of the New Aesthetic are doing their earnest best. The question is whether we’re willing to listen.
Rahel Aima is a co-editor at THE STATE, and currently based in Dubai. Her research focuses on the intersections of magic, radical politics and future technologies. She can also be found at Twitter, Tumblr, and Wordpress.

Harvey Nichols, Woman, 2
By Madeline Ashby
A while back, I wrote a post called The New Aesthetics of the Male Gaze, a feminist critique of the New Aesthetic. The central point there was that it has apparently taken the recent ubiquity of surveillance technology for some men to feel the pressure of constant observation that women have always been under. Later, I wrote about my own experience creating art about ubiquitous surveillance technology, and the magical thinking that conflates “surveillance” with “security”. What these posts shared in common, beyond my individual perspective, is an understanding that surveillance is about looking, and looking is powerful. As Rahel Aima wrote in her response:

The New Aesthetic is about looking, undeniably. Yet as a paginated yet endlessly scrollable tumblr, is in itself a thing to be looked at. It is about being looked at by humans and by machines, about being the object of the gaze. It’s about the dissolution of privacy and reproductive rights, and the monitoring, mapping, and surveillance of the (re)gendered (re)racialised body.
Aima further suggests that the allure of the New Aesthetic might be that it offers (frequently male) artists and observers the opportunity to inhabit a traditionally feminine subjectivity: the subject of another’s penetrating gaze. But I’ll go one step further and suggest that while ubiquitous surveillance does offer that opportunity, it also creates a new dialectic of subjectivity altogether. Namely, it plays with what social neuroscientists call “Theory of Mind.” ToM is the ability to attribute mental states to others. We observe others and theorize what’s going on behind their eyes. Humans have a whole sensorium devoted to just this: hearing tones of voice, perceiving the motion of eyes and lips, smelling changes in pheremones. But it’s all organic. When confronted by a machine, that system goes haywire and we start either anthropomorphizing to compensate, or tumbling down into the Uncanny Valley. The New Aesthetic seems to be an attempt to generate a third response by re-inscribing both human subjectivity and that of the machine eye.
I say this because not only does the New Aesthetic take as given a heretofore-feminine vulnerability among the humans being surveilled, but also treats the surveilling machine eye as technologically immature and therefore morally innocent. By returning to the blocky, colourful 8-bit world that informed the childhood experience of so many artists of the New Aesthetic, they imbue the surveilling eye with a similar youthful innocence. They have looked into the black dome, and seen their own naiveté reflected in its gleaming surface.
This is another example of magical thinking at work. The same thought process that encourages us to conflate surveillance with security also encourages us to ascribe agency to machines that have none, a habit that Bruce Sterling decried at length in his original critique. As Sterling pointed out, machines are never our friends. But not, I would add, for lack of trying. Adopting the idea that “they’re not bad, they’re just programmed that way,” is a very cute way of eliding the programming itself, which is human, and is rooted in a human agenda. The Celts created art about Orna, the magical talking sword; our development of an aesthetic that does the same for twenty-first century weapons is just the next step in that tradition.
Madeline Ashby is a science fiction writer and futurist living in Toronto. Her debut novel, vN, will be available this summer from Angry Robot Books. Her other writing has appeared at BoingBoing, io9, Tor.com, and WorldChanging.

Detail of tiles from the Kalon Mosque in Bukhara, Uzbekistan, and a detail of a 19th C. Amish quilt.
By Hrag Vartanian
The concept of a “new” aesthetic is arcane. Nothing is new anymore or can ever really be—and by “new” I don’t mean an invention (like an iPhone or translucent concrete) but the sense of something coming before another, something replacing something else in a progression that charts history as a forward thrust in society. The “new” is a refugee of the Modernist era, which hints at some of the flaws of James Bridle’s “New Aesthetic.” But before I get into specifics about this Nouveau—I’m sorry, I mean New Aesthetic, let’s get a few things straight.
Bridle is not a historian, and his memory is short — though to be fair, his own URL, shorttermmemoryloss.com, suggests as much. I don’t know if he lost his memory through smoking weed (I’ve heard this happens, but don’t ask me how, I forget) or perhaps a head injury (walking while precariously texting?), but either way, when he cites sources for the New Aesthetic, he doesn’t look back very far, preferring to see the contemporary through the lens of the recent past (which is easily Googled, I guess). In that way, his New Aesthetic is an updated sense of retro, though retro-present may be more fitting. Joanne McNeil tries to look back beyond the internet for sources for Bridle’s big, nebulous idea, but her history is highly selective and very Western.
The concept of retro is extensively explored by Elizabeth E. Guffey in her book Retro: The Culture of Revival, where she explains:
“Retro’s translation of recent history into consumable objects suggests how previous periods of popular culture and art and design can be used to characterize ourselves as distinct from the recent past.”
It’s a provocative idea, but one that highlights the weakness of this new “new.” The fact that most of Bridle’s examples tend to be products (pixel-covered pillows, planes, umbrellas, shoes … ) is telling, and even when he uses contemporary art, his choices tend to be weak and marginal examples, though with a few exceptions. Gerhard Richter’s stained glass windows at Cologne Cathedral are a standout, but Richter’s work is as much about his own body of art as any digital realities.
Bridle admits his discomfort with the label of the New Aesthetic, but it has stuck—and for good reason, I believe. The term captures the anticipation of the new that drives our consumer culture, as we wait for it every day with bated breath. Even if the New Aesthetic is “real” (whatever that means), it can only ever be one of many parallel ways of seeing, thinking and understanding.
It’s rather telling that Bridle is a designer. Designers are communicators, but not in the way that fine artists are (I don’t believe in strict divisions, but there is a divide nonetheless); they’re communicators in the way marketers are, in that they package the world for ease. Don’t get me wrong, I like easy, but the aesthetic here is one mostly of style and not content. The world they imagine already exists, and it doesn’t look forward but back. Unlike the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, who took the science of optics and color and used it to transform art, imagining a world that others didn’t see, the New Aesthetic and its acolytes (if I can call them that) don’t look forward or transform. Instead, they appear to mimic and quote — cough retro cough.
What’s more, to call something a “new aesthetic” would suggest that it supplants something that already exists, but our world is too fragmented for this to happen. To project our visions onto machines is to erase our differences. To allow machines to see us without acknowledging our biases, since we’re the ones who made them, would suggest that identity doesn’t matter. And yet, I would argue it matters more than ever. Nowhere in the discussion of the New Aesthetic does identity play a role. Perhaps those pixels Bridle sees everywhere evoke Islamic tile work, or Appalachian patchwork quilts, or the mosaic of multiculturalism (I’m Canadian, so I had to throw that in). Bridle, by his own admission, is obsessed with the Telehouse server farm in the UK, which is decorated with a pixelated wall. It’s an example of form following function … where have I heard that before?
It’s a tad bizarre that Bruce Sterling, in his much-quoted Wired essay, “An Essay on the New Aesthetic,” compares this idea manufactured by British media designers to those of the Futurists, Impressionists and Cubists. He writes, “There truly are many forms of imagery nowadays that are modern, and unique to this period.” Modern? Even the usage of the word feels like a throwback to another era. Sterling places the New Aesthetic in London, though Bridle never couples geography with the idea. Sterling’s biggest contribution to our understanding of the New Aesthetic is his suggestion that the Modernist project is for the New Aestheticians (can we make it a noun?) “like their Greco-Roman antiquity,” by which I assume he means what Greco-Roman antiquity is to the foundations of Western Civilization, or maybe Euro-American civilization. And, he adds, it’s a generational thing — a young, Western one, it seems.
Where Sterling really goes off the tracks is in his characterization of the New Aesthetic as some sort of avant-garde, while almost apologizing for the oddness of the term to our contemporary ears and eyes. Avant-gardes don’t exist anymore and haven’t for decades. Sterling is a difficult writer. His ideas meander, much like Bridle’s notion of the New Aesthetic. Maybe, in fact, there is no meaning, because it’s only a style; not an aesthetic in the broader sense, but one limited in scope to what has already happened and lacking an ability to dream into the future.
Which brings me to my final point: the false bravado of the New Aesthetic. It’s making a splash but why? Eight-bit looks back to an era where that level of resolution was cutting-edge, pixels highlight the shortcomings of some machines now that we have better ones, blurred objects on digital maps don’t do anything more than fences and barbed wire circling forbidden zones do, and angular camouflage doesn’t really have anything to do with the digital (something McNeil and Sterling both admit). So what’s left?
What if pixels — to take one aspect of the New Aesthetic — today are what chrome and plastic were to the 1960s or the ship-inspired Art Deco of the 1930s? What if the Hawk-Eye analysis in Cricket matches what Bridle cooed about in his talk during Web Directions South 2011 isn’t really any different than photo finishes in horse racing? What if his Where the F**k Was I? book is just tedious and not really very interesting, because I don’t really care where his phone thinks it was?
This repackaging of the digital into the next hot thing echoes our pop-tech culture that promises another life-changing device, app or service every month. It’s this month’s Tumblr, which is last month’s Instagram, or was it next week’s Pinterest? I don’t mean to be flip—wait, I do mean to be flip, and, to quote Gertrude Stein, who wrote about her experience looking for her childhood home in Oakland, California: “there is no there there.” I consider the internet my home in a way that no place has ever been. Looking closely at the New Aesthetic, I’m not sure where the “there” can even be.
Hrag Vartanian is the editor of Hyperallergic and the owner of a brand new tumblelog called The New New Aesthetic that will begin making fun of, he means critiquing, The New Aesthetic on May 6, exactly one year after that tumblelog began.

Stories from the New Aesthetic

So, last night James Bridle and Joanne McNeil and I got together again and did a(nother) panel about the New Aesthetic at the New Museum, as part of Rhizome's New Silent lecture series. I think the event was sold out or nearly so and that was really lovely. Thanks, everyone who came! Given all that's been written and said since the first panel in Austin this spring it would be a lie to say that there wasn't some trepidation about what a second panel and audience might end up looking like. In the end it was all good, I think, and we each managed to just focus on the things we've been thinking about since March. We told stories.
Joanne has posted her notes as has James. Also, Paul Soulellis published his raw notes about the panel. This is what I said.
I've been thinking a lot about motive and intent for the last few years. How we recognize motive and, more specifically, how we measure its consequence.
This is hardly uncharted territory. You can argue easily enough that it remains the core issue that all religion, philosophy and politics struggle with. Motive or trust within a community of individuals.
The security expert Bruce Schneier recently published a book about trust titled Liars and Outliers in which he writes:
In today's complex society, we often trust systems more than people. It's not so much that I trusted the plumber at my door as that I trusted the systems that produced him and protect me.
I often find myself thinking about motive and consequence in the form of a very specific question: Who is allowed to speak on behalf of an organization?
To whom do we give not simply the latitude of interpretation, but the luxury of association, with the thing they are talking about?
I have some fairly selfish reasons for thinking about this after having spent a number of years inside a big company and arguing about the value, or more often the relative risks, of releasing experimental or nascent features that may not square with an organization's singular narrative.
But the consequences of someone in government, for example, speaking in a way that exposes them or their department to a lawsuit is very real, whether or not it's actually warranted. We have instrumented a legal system in this country that allows people to enforce penalties on other people's actions not unlike the way patent trolls file pointless suits because there's real money to be made doing it. Motive works both ways.
Some of the resistance is also an historical function of the cost of production - in both time and money - and immutability of how we've built things in the past. Institutionalizing or formalizing consequence is often a way to guarantee an investment but that often plows head-first in to the subtleties of real-life.
Consider Jonathan Wallace's An Auschwitz Alphabet which is a website described as twenty-six slices ... to illustrate the entire human landscape of the concentration camp.
I first heard about this during the debates in the 1990s about whether or not website creators should be rating their own work. At the time, Wallace wrote:
Assigning an R rating to the file on human experimentation ... would place it in exactly the same R-rated category as sexual material with no SLAP value whatever, and would prevent minors with a perfectly legitimate interest from seeing it. Under a rating system which paralleled what we do for movies, I would either have to assign An Auschwitz Alphabet a G rating or refuse to rate it entirely.
I have memories but can find no actual evidence that Yahoo! banned the Auschwitz Alphabet, from its directory listings, on the grounds that it was inappropriate content and not suitable for a family brand. So, consider that possibility as a kind of more-than-likely design fiction.
I am newly arrived at the Cooper-Hewitt, here in New York. My job is to help figure out what it means, and how, to make the museum native to the internet.
If the pressure on museums was once only to remain internally consistent we are now confronted with the prospect of trying to enforce brand guidelines across the entire network.
Because this is what 2012 looks like for museums.
It is most definitely not about Twitter but about the fact that some random person out there on the Internet is building a record of understanding about Roombas that may well rival anything we will ever do ourselves.
Beyond that, we are being forced to accept the fact that our collections are becoming "alive". Or at least they are assuming the plausible illusion of being alive.
We are having to deal with the fact that someone else might be breathing life in to our collections for us or, frankly, despite us. We are having to deal with the fact that it might not even be a person doing it.
That there's a person out there pretending to be a Roomba just means that we are beginning to believe that a Roomba might actually do this itself one day.
And never mind the robots that we can see. We are instrumenting everything around us with sensors. We don't typically think of the whale songs that elevators make every day as story-telling but it's not a stretch. Certainly not if we're even going to talk about whale songs for which we have absolutely assigned motive in the absence of any understanding.
Either way, it's happening out there on the network.
Personally, I'm okay with all of this.
I have always argued that as museums our goal should always be to get people inside the building, to see the actual things we collect. There is value in rubbing up against them in the flesh.
At the same time, a museum's digital presence is the first, and sometimes only, avenue that people have to get to know a collection – be they scholars, casual visitors or increasingly the network itself.
This is especially true for the holdings that, for one reason or another, never actually see the light of an exhibition room and we need to get comfortable with the idea that a single narrative motive is often doing our collections more harm than good.
Even if we're not entirely sure how to measure the ways in which those stories might blow back or get confused with our own.
If museums are going to spend all their time worrying about whether or not we are being "brandjacked" then we also have to be able to answer the uncomfortable question of: What is it that makes us different from any other shareholder-driven business hawking a stable of character franchises? —I left this part out of the talk proper, in the end, but it's still true.
I had the opportunity to visit Dia:Beacon last month and some of my favourite pieces were Gerhard Richter's plate-glass Rothko paintings.
They reminded me of Lisbon or rather of a Lisbon that I only just caught a glimpse of, once.
If you've never been to Lisbon the city is defined by its hills and by the omnipresence of heavy wooden doors and shutters painted forest green. And yet behind so many of those wooden doors you'll find the same floor to ceiling plate-glass doors you find in every other city in the world.
We were walking past the train station one day where two businesses facing each other on opposite sides of the street had each opened their heavy wooden doors. Their interior glass doors were left to start parroting the city and sky and everything that they could also see including the doors across the street. It was beautiful and disorienting and it felt, just for a moment, like an entirely new Lisbon.
The chances of convincing the Portuguese to throw off a thousand years of history and big green doors, in the service of a million new hypothetical vantage points, are probably zero but I was reminded of that moment looking at Richter's work.
The idea of the city exploding in to a feedback loop with itself – of bursting through, as James likes to say – feels like a useful way to think about how we're teaching digital things to dance in the world and what we see in the the funny ways they react to it.
We're really good at pattern matching. By which I mean we're really good at seeing patterns and of making them out of whole cloth.
And we are starting to ask the network – the machines and cameras and sensors and cables and all the pipes, visible and invisible, that connect them and surround us – to look for patterns too. We're trying to teach pattern matching and we're not sure what to do with what's coming back
I am not here to argue that the robots are really seeing anything yet - at least not on our terms.
What interests me is that we - not the robots - are the ones seeing the patterns coming back and we know from experience the kind of crazy-talk narratives that could be shaped out of them. We can see both motive and consequence birthed in those patterns.
There is a larger question of whether our willingness to allow the robots to act *of their own accord* on those constitutes de-facto seeing but, by and large, we continue to actively side-step that question.
For a while now drones have been the current best manifestation of the idea that we are living in a world of consequences without warning. Of patterns recognized where none may yet exist.
At the moment we haven't completely abdicated the responsibility for drones so we tell ourselves that there is still a warm body, that we could appeal to, watching at the end of every decision to fire a missile.
But we all know that work is underway to develop systems that automate – that pattern match – those decisions.
In that way I actually think that self-driving cars are the new drones.
I've been having a running debate with the artist John Powers about the inevitability of self-driving cars and their necessity in order to ensure that urban spaces may not only survive but to thrive.
Self-driving cars may well happen but they remain profoundly weird and creepy to me in ways that other automated systems don't. It is, as systems, their complete and deliberate lack of imagination that I find unnerving.
Which brings us to the Fifth Law of Robotics as defined by me and John: That your insurance rates will always go up.
Short of divorcing all interactions between people and cars, save for air-locks in which to enter and exit a vehicle, they will be programmed within an inch of their lives to limit what they're allowed to do. Out of necessity.
Things like cars, that have mass and velocity and the ability to cause serious and permanent damage, are for good reason not given a lot of latitude.
For the same reason that I absolutely do not want to find out what the equivalent of cars spontaneously smart-mobbing to hold whatever they think a pillow fight is, it is not difficult to imagine what it would take to launch a denial-of-service attack against a fleet of self-driving cars.
And maybe that's part of the problem.
Contrast self-driving cars with Siri which has proven itself to be a never-ending source of surprise to people. Siri seems fun because it feels like there is room to tease out new interactions; that you could make Siri in to something new and unexpected. The illusion of being able to trick Siri is real enough.
I think part of the reason we feel that way is that we rely on the notion that people are very much irrational. Not for everything, but for quite a lot of what we do it is profoundly important.
It means that there are strategies (both benign and creepy) for navigating a world of other people by being able to account for and manipulate that irrationality. It also means we preserve the ability to hide from one another.
To quote Bruce Schneier, again:
If we were designing a life form, as we might do in a computer game, we would try to figure out what sort of security it needed and give it abilities accordingly. Real-world species don't have that luxury. Instead, they try new attributes randomly. So instead of an external designer optimizing a species' abilities based on its needs, evolution randomly walks through the solution space and stops at the first solution that works—even if just barely. Then it climbs upwards in the fitness landscape until it reaches a local optimum. You get a lot of weird security that way.
There is little or no room to "play" with a thing like a self-driving car that's been built for lawsuits.
And this all points to a kind of writing on the wall that I think makes everyone very uncomfortable, whether or not we've found a good way to talk about it yet. It points to a world where we're stuck trying to make peace with the irrational pattern matching of sensors paired with the decision trees that only know a uniformity of motive.
Like the unknown high-speed trading algorithm that popped up last week and accounted for 4% of all trades. One article I've read about the event sums it up nicely:
The problem is, every exchange sees things from their own little world. They don’t see how things react outside of that world, and they have no incentive to. So when you have these complex systems interacting with each other and nobody’s really paying attention to the aggregate, you set yourself up for times ... when you’re only going to find out how the new systems all work together when you’ve got this really bad news event that nobody was expecting.
Good times.
It's not as though this is the first time we've felt overwhelmed by the consequence of the technologies we've developed. At this point we have all heard too many times about how people's minds were blown by riding the first train as it traveled a whopping six miles per hour.
It is also not the first time that we have worried that we are building a future devoid of narrative. The Industrial Revolution, and pretty much every critique of capitalism, is full of that story up to and including Francis Fukiyama's claim that history ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall.
But that doesn't mean that there isn't something new happening.
Which brings me to Instagram. Like drones and self-driving cars Instagram is just a "current best" short-hand for a lot of interrelated issues: That we have always been at war with a suspect past.
There is a lot to criticize about Instragram but I want to take issue with what is seemingly the most common of grievances: Those goofy filters.
The reason that I have such a problem with all the talk about how awful and retrograde people filtering their photos is that if we did anything wrong, at Flickr, it was letting people believe that their photos weren't good enough to be worth uploading to the site.
For a photo-sharing website I'm not sure I can think of a bigger failure. For a community website built around a medium as broad and as deep as photography to allow its members to think that there is nothing more interesting than, say, HDR sunsets is pretty grim.
And yet all it took to get all those people excited about the art and the craft of photography again – in ways of seeing the world as something more than a mirror – were those stupid filters.
Those stupid filters are really important because they re-opened a space in which people could maneuver. These are new things not least because I'm guessing that a sizable chunk of Instagram's user base was born after the 1970's and so there is no nostalgia to be asserted. The past is just a medium.
Sometimes the past is not a rejection of the present but a good and useful screen through which to look for patterns, to look for things we'd never have been able to see in the past.
We are in the process of lining the walls of the Schrodinger's box we all live in with mirrors and it may well be the first time we've gotten truly close to removing the idea of plausible deniability from our lives.
We assume that there are some very smart people at places like Google or, if you're feeling lucky, Facebook who are hard at work unravelling the mystery and meaning of all those overlapping patterns. It's worth remembering, though, that these are all companies whose purpose is to service what are basically singular and selfish motives. They are building better tools to automate already learned behaviours. Patterns.
Not too far from the center all that learning and future magic starts to get warped and abused in some very weird ways.
Pity the librarians of the future who will have to decide how to catalog the books that were programmatically written by harvesting the content farms that were themselves machine-generated to game Google's ranking algorithms.
That's the world we are all living in. The details vary from person to person but we are all trying to make sense of the feedback loop of reflective surfaces that a world gone digital is producing.
We are trying to glean the consequence of its velocity.
So, I am going to continue the tradition of ending these talks with a deliberately wooly and rhetorical question:
We have barely learned to trust one another, outside of tiny little Dunbar Tribes, let alone trust ourselves to teach computers how to interpret the motive of a stranger. We are also being forced to figure out for robots quite a lot of stuff we've never really figured out for ourselves.
What if we are pouncing on the seemingly weird stuff that the network appears to be doing not in order to correct it but as a way to dig for stories – for patterns – and to tunnel for loopholes as a way to always stay one step ahead of our intentions, of our motives.
Thank you.
Roger / at the New Museum
And yes, we brought Roger.

The Busy Months

These are the busy months. Or rather, the busy months have returned. Busy and good.
Last week was To Be Designed, in Detroit, organized by the ever-fabulous Julian Bleecker. #tbd deserves a blog post all of its own but that's a thing that will have to fight for time and space in between all the other exciting stuff happening:
  • On October 11, I will be doing a talk (titled Computational Deep Water and the Gasoline of Internal Desire) as part of Stories from the New Aesthetic, with James Bridle and Joanne McNeil at the New Museum in New York.
  • On October 19, I will be doing a keynote (titled We Were Otaku Before It Was Cool) at the Access 2012 conference, in Montreal.
  • On November 8, I will be speaking with Micah Walter about the work (code-named Parallel TMS) we've been doing on the Cooper-Hewitt collections website at the Museum Computer Network conference, in Seattle.
  • On November 20, I will be doing a keynote (titled time pixels / units of measure in the land of fan-fiction, rent-seeking and lifestyle porn) at the National Digital Forum, in Wellington. I'll also be doing a workshop about Solr and related search-y bits with Nate Solas and Chris McDowall the day before.
  • And probably a few other things in Sydney (and maybe Melbourne) but those are details that still need to worked out.
I will keep notes along the way and try to pen an epic summary in time for Myles to curl up and spend the holiday season reading it all. In the meantime, if you're around for any of these events please come say hello or just send up a flare if you're in the same city! - www.aaronland.

Nema komentara:

Objavi komentar