But it moves: the New Aesthetic & emergent virtual taste

In the wake of South-by-Southwest, Bruce Sterling has posted a grand, thorough, ruminative essay about the New Aesthetic. If you don’t know the New Aesthetic, you should go and have a look at the tumblr that serves as both its wonder cabinet and its manifesto. Hosted by technologist, impresario, and publishing artist James Bridle, the 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.

At Bridle’s SXSW panel, a quartet of terrifically smart and creative people put the New Aesthetic through its paces, situating it in the history of avant-gardes and exploring its social, commercial, and literary potential.

Sterling isn’t convinced:

[T]he 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.

I should point out that throughout his essay, Sterling applauds Bridle and his New-Aesthetic comrades for their taste, energy, and creativity. He wants to see their project cohere, wants to see it thrust forth some fully-assembled theory for making and perceiving beautiful objects in a digital age. Sterling isn’t primarily concerned that the New Aesthetic group lacks grand, synthesizing ambitions, but that the trust they place in machines as collaborators is naively misplaced:

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.

This insistence that machines don’t care and won’t care about what we see, or about what seeing certain things does to us as organisms, is a deep—and I think deeply productive—problem for the New Aesthetic. There’s a yearning, a beseeching in our relation to machines, and I can’t help thinking we’ll find ourselves spurned, or cuckolded, or worse in the end. Learning to see through machines is not the same thing as learning to see as machines. Networks manifest an aloof, alien kind of omniscience—increasingly ubiquitous and radically, irredeemably insensible in crucial ways. This is off-the-charts otherness, a hyperotherness… and from some quarters there is a yearning, a gnostic peering after some event horizon, a dreamt-of ubiquity or singularity, beyond which machines and human consciousness interpenetrate, some Michelangelesque digital touch-point—all of which Sterling would say is just so much eschatology in the vein of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. We’re not in fact empathizing with machines; we’re empathizing with screens. And when you consider what’s really going on in the machine, the screen behavior is epiphenomenal.

BERG’s QR clock comes to mind; check this out if you haven’t seen it. It’s a clock only readable by a machine, its display taking the form of cycling QR codes. BERG developed it with the idea that incorporating a QR readout into a clock with a standard numerical display would afford a way to authenticate photos of physical spaces, the way we hold up newspapers in ransom photos. It’s a funny affordance to design for, however, when the machines are already metering time on scales and according to schemes that utterly elude our senses. What do computers care about clocks or faces? We teach machines to indicate them, to prick up their ears in their presence, because that’s what we need. Our imaginary just manages to graze the edges of what might be called the experience of machines—and it’s on that borderland which the New Aesthetic emerges, traveling a differently-ordered sovereignty, in which we’re feral interlopers.

So maybe there’s more to glitch than the *merely* weird, mere passing fancy. Perhaps glitches are the syllables of a kind of lingua franca, a Chinook jargon for the our imaginal interface with the net; perhaps they’re the sensory visa stamped by machines in our feral passport. The glitch is precisely the sigil of the Singularity’s asymptotic impossibility—the glimmer of the irreducible gap, which is also a meaning-making swerve. It’s what makes J. G. Ballard a toweringly better futurist than Arthur C. Clarke. What would a New-Aesthetic 2001: A Space Odyssey look like? Would lies, or mission loyalty, or even the monoliths be interesting to a machine intelligence in touch with itself? Of course, HAL never was interested in the monoliths. In HAL’s place, we have the rovers Spirit and Opportunity, whose patience through the long Martian winters is both awe-inspiring and unnerving. They’re slow, palsied trek, their long frozen pauses, their caterpillar tracks in the red soil, amount to a kind of new-aesthetic performance par excellence.

In a conversation elsewhere, a friend pointed out that the New Aesthetic is practicing something like the pathetic fallacy—that time-honored conceit of poets that attributes feeling to inanimate objects. Indeed there is an element of pathetic fallacy here, which promises all the richness and poetic power poets have used it to body forth. It’s an attempt to frame something akin to Spinoza’s notion of Natura naturans—nature “naturing”—nature expressing itself in its unfolding, a process whose edges we barely touch. And even in fronting the brute facts of nature through scientific means, we have a hard time rinsing ourselves of the pathetic fallacy entirely. Gravitational bodies attract one another; nature abhors a vacuum. Eppur si muove, Galileo is said to have murmured under his breath after being forced to recant heliocentrism and affirm the Earth as the stationary center of the universe: but still it moves.

It’s not totally unreasonable to suppose that *something* is going on in nature, that its constituent objects have some kind of motivation, even if they’re composed of mere chemical gradients or pressure differentials or quantum states. The computer opens up a special case because we made it, and yet it manifests itself in all kinds of ways that seem like a nature—another nature—a little nature, perhaps. There is a strong sense that with computers and their networks, something is going on in there, something emergent and radically other, which nonetheless does begin to infiltrate our edges.

I think of the check digit here. In a line of encoding, the check digit is a 1 or 0 placed at the end of a message to ensure the sum of the line is either even or odd; if a bit is missing somewhere else in the line, the check digit lets the system know that something has gone missing. In a slightly pathetic frame of mind, it’s a very naive, very simple kind of aesthetic sensibility we afforded to the machine. And check digits predate computers; they were introduced in the context of telegraphy. The telegraph network didn’t give a fig for our sense of error; the characters encoded in any given transmission might be put to work telling a lie, expressing an inapt simile, or proffering some malignant ideology, but the cables didn’t care. If a bit is out of place, however, something like a taste—a taste radically different from ours, different even from the pathos-free taste Sterling wants, a budding virtual taste akin at this stage to a single neuron sparking in a petri dish—is offended. Not really, of course. And yet it does move. Ramified and compounded many times over, the emergent, virtual taste of the network metastasizes into some fascinating effects: a ubiquitous-but-glitchy attention; an ambient-but-imperfect recoverability of the past; an assemblage of objects that seem to keep track of their histories, that seem to have something like experience; a participatory, slightly asynchronous panopticon. I don’t think the New Aesthetic is heralding the approach of the Singularity’s event horizon, where computers will vault into consciousness and begin writing a sui-generis literature that drops fully formed from the brow of Stanislaw Lem. The New Aesthetic is making a much humbler move: pointing out these feral phenomena erupting into our midst and saying, but they move.