21 May 2012

Glitch Ontology

The digital (or computational) presents us with a number of theoretical and empirical challenges which we can understand within this commonly used set of binaries:
  • Linearity vs Hypertextuality
  • Narrative vs Database
  • Permanent vs Ephemeral
  • Bound vs Unbound
  • Individual vs Social
  • Deep vs Shallow
  • Focused vs Distracted
  • Close Read vs Distant Read
  • Fixed vs Processual
  • Digital (virtual) vs Real (physical)

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

Glitch inspired Dubstep Dancing (Dancer: Marquese Scott)

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

Theories are nets, and we should evaluate them, not as ends in themselves, but for how they concretely change the way we work: for how they allow us to enlarge the… field, and re-design it in a better way, replacing the old, useless distinctions… with new temporal, special, and morphological distinctions (Moretti 2007: 91, original emphasis). 
These binaries can be useful means of thinking through many of the positions and debates that take place within both theoretical and empirical work on mapping the digital.

  1. Linear versus Hypertextuality: The notion of a linear text, usually fixed within a paper form, is one that has been taken for granted within the humanities. Computational systems, however, have challenged this model of reading because of the ease by which linked data can be incorporated into digital text. This has meant that experimentation with textual form and the way in which a reader might negotiate a text can be explored. Of course, the primary model for hypertextual systems is today strongly associated with the worldwide web and HTML, although other systems have been developed.
  2. Narrative versus Database: The importance of narrative as an epistemological frame for understanding has been hugely important in the humanities. Whether as a starting point for beginning an analysis, or through attempts to undermine of problematize narratives within texts, humanities scholars have usually sought to use narrative as an explanatory means of exploring both the literary and history. Computer technology, however, has offered scholars an alternative way of understanding how knowledge might be structured through the notion of the database. This approach personified in the work of Lev Manovich (2001) has been argued to represent an important aspect to digital media, and more importantly the remediation of old media forms in digital systems.
  3. Permanent versus Ephemeral: One of the hallmarks of much ‘traditional’ or ‘basic’ humanities scholarship has been concerned with objects and artifacts that have been relatively stable in relation to digital works. This especially in disciplines that have internalized the medium specificity of a form, for example the book in English Literature, which shifts attention to the content of the medium. In contrast, digital works are notoriously ephemeral in their form, both in the materiality of the substrates (e.g. computer memory chips, magnetic tape/disks, plastic disks, etc.) but also in the plasticity of the form.  This also bears upon the lack of an original from which derivative copies are made, indeed it could be argued that in the digital world there is only the copy (although recent moves in Cloud computing and digital rights management are partial attempts to re-institute the original through technical means).
  4. Bound versus Unbound: A notable feature of digital artifacts is that they tend to be unbound in character. Unlike books, which have clear boundary points marked by the cardboard that makes up the covers, digital objects boundaries are drawn by the file format in which they are encoded. This makes it an extremely permeable border, and one that is made of the same digital code that marks the content. Additionally, digital objects are easily networked and aggregated, processed and transcoded into other forms further problematizing a boundary point.  In terms of reading practices, it can be seen that the permeability of boundaries can radically change the reading experience.
  5. Individual versus Social: traditional humanities has focused strongly on approaches to texts that is broadly individualistic inasmuch as the reader is understood to undertake certain bodily practices (e.g. sitting in a chair, book on knees, concentration on the linear flow of text). Digital technologies, particularly when networked, open these practices up to a much more social experience of reading, with e-readers like the Amazon Kindle encouraging the sharing of highlighted passages, and Tumblr-type blogs and Twitter enabling discussion around and within the digital text.
  6. Deep versus Shallow: Deep reading is the presumed mode of understanding that requires time and attention to develop a hermeneutic reading of a text, this form requires humanistic reading skills to be carefully learned and applied. In contrast a shallow mode is a skimming or surface reading of a text, more akin to gathering a general overview or précis of the text.
  7. Focused versus Distracted: Relatedly, the notion of focused reading is also implicitly understood as an important aspect of humanities scholarship. This is the focus on a particular text, set of texts or canon, and the space and time to give full attention to them. By contrast, in a world of real-time information and multiple windows on computer screens, reading practices are increasingly distracted, partial and fragmented (hyperattention).
  8. Close Reading versus Distant Reading: Distant reading is the application of technologies to enable a great number of texts to be incorporated into an analysis through the ability of computers to process large quantities of text relatively quickly. Moretti (2007) has argued that this approach allows us to see social and cultural forces at work through collective cultural systems.
  9. Fixed versus Processual: The digital medium facilitates new ways of presenting media that are highly computational, this raises new challenges for scholarship into new media and the methods for approaching these mediums. It also raises questions for older humanities that are increasingly accessing their research object through the mediation of processural computational systems, and more particularly through software and computer code.
  10. Real (physical) versus Digital (virtual): This is a common dichotomy that draws some form of dividing line between the so-called real and the so-called digital. 
The New Aesthetic 'pixel' fashion 
I am outlining these binaries because I think they are useful for helping us to draw the contours of what I call elsewhere 'computationality', and for its relationship to the New Aesthetic. In order to move beyond a ‘technological sublime’, we should begin the theoretical and empirical projects through the development of ‘cognitive maps’ (Jameson 1990). Additionally, as the digital increasingly structures the contemporary world, curiously, it also withdraws, and becomes harder and harder for us to focus on as it is embedded, hidden, off-shored or merely forgotten about. Part of the challenge is to bring the digital (code/software) back into visibility for research and critique.

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




Preen Spring/Summer 2012 | Source: Style.com
Previously I argued that this New Aesthetic is a form of 'abduction aesthetic' linked to the emergence of computationality as an ontotheology. Computationality is here understood as a specific historical epoch defined by a certain set of computational knowledges, practices, methods and categories. Abductive aesthetic (or pattern aesthetic) is linked by a notion of computational patterns and pattern recognition as a means of cultural expression. I argue that we should think about software/code through a notion of computationality as an ontotheology. Computationality (as an ontotheology) creates a new ontological ‘epoch’ as a new historical constellation of intelligibility. In other words, code/software is the paradigmatic case of computationality, and presents us with a research object which is located at all major junctures of modern society and is therefore unique in enabling us to understand the present situation – as a collection, network, or assemblage of 'coded objects' or 'code objects'.

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



Technicity
(modern technology)
Computationality (postmodern technology)
Mode of Revealing
Challenging-forth (Gestell)

Streaming-forth
Paradigmatic Equipment
Technical devices, machines.
Computational devices, computers, processors.

Goals (projects)
1. Unlocking, transforming, storing, distributing, and switching about Standing Reserve (Bestand).
2. Efficiency.

1. Trajectories,  Processing information, Algorithmic transformation (aggregation, reduction, calculation), as data reserve (Cloudscape).
2. Computability.
Identities (roles)
Ordering-beings

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

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

- Additive Logic (processed data is supplement to world)
Table 1: Technicity vs Computationality


Computational devices appear to oscillate rapidly between Vorhandenheit/Zuhandenheit (present-at-hand/ready-to-hand) – a glitch ontology. Or perhaps better, constantly becoming ready-to-hand/unready-to-hand in quick alternation. And by quick this can be happening in microseconds, milliseconds, or seconds, repeatedly in quick succession. This aspect of breakdown has been acknowledged as an issue within human-computer design and is seen as one of pressing concern to be ‘fixed’ or made invisible to the computational device user (Winograd and Flores 1987).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Bibliography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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