Through the Time Barrier
Art and Design in the Digital Age
During the past decade, computers have broken through the barrier of human time. Today, computers can process data in milli-, micro- and even nanoseconds and can (inter)act autonomously in time frames that exceed our capacity to perceive and respond to. This produces a fundamental problem – a gap between human time and the time of computers – and raises important questions: how do big data and fast computation affect our experience and understanding of time? If a computer is able to deal with the world faster than we can, are we doomed to live forever in the past, however near the present? Or are we dealing with a technological extension of the present, and how might we be able to understand and experience this? By analysing theory and works of art, this text examines how to deal with the shock produced by microtemporal technologies.
Keywords: Time, Speed, Big Data, Digital Technology, Art and Design
The Flash Crash of 2010 marked an important moment in how we think about, experience and rely on time. On Thursday May 6 2010, at 14:42:44 and 75 milliseconds, the New York Stock Exchange registered a rapid and dramatic fall of its most prominent indexes without any apparent cause. The stocks rebounded quickly to roughly their previous states over the course of minutes. In this short period of time, however, a trillion dollar of stock value evaporated. It is generally assumed that the cause of these flash crashes is a combination of algorithmic and high-frequency trading, which displaces a human trader by complex mathematical formulae that are automatically executed by a high-speed computer program. The time frame in which these algorithms operate (i.e. buy and sell in reaction to the activity of others) is in the range of milli- and even microseconds, which amounts to one millionth of a second or 0.000001 second. The discrepancy between the incredibly high speed of computer activity and the relatively slow pace of human sensorial perception seems to leave us in a strange place. As we automate and outsource more and more of our activity to computers acting at higher speeds than we can possibly perceive and therefore react to, we run the risk of falling out of the loop, of always running behind, arriving after the fact – as continues to happen with each flash crash.
In 1994, the French philosopher Paul Virilio already argued how the speed of computers has replaced our natural division of time in past, present and future with two different forms of time: real time and delayed time.1 In his book The Vision Machine, Virilio explains how ‘extensive’ time – the long and slow time of human perception and history – has given way to ‘intensive’ time – the ultrafast microscopic time of computer technologies. Because of these technologies, Virilio writes, we increasingly find ourselves in a situation where ‘what is perceived is already finished,’2 which is why we urgently need to evaluate reality in terms of intensity and speed.3
In his book Feed Forward: On the Future of Twenty-First-Century Media (2015), media theorist and philosopher Mark B.N. Hansen examines how microtemporal computational media produce a digitally-mediated and digitally-enhanced experience ‘that cannot be “had” by a “you” at the moment of its occurrence, but that can only be reappropriated by the “you” (by human perceptual consciousness) after the fact.’4 In other words, because machines (like high-frequency trading algorithms) are able to sense and act at extremely high speeds, there is no need – or possibility – for conscious experience and evaluation by humans, at least not at the moment when the machine’s actions take place.
A good example that shows this is the interactive documentary Money & Speed: Inside the Black Box (2011) produced by VPRO Tegenlicht and designed by Daniel Gross and Joris Maltha of design studio Catalogtree. In Money & Speed, dynamic infographics and data visualizations provide insight into the microtemporal world of high-frequency trading (Fig. 1 and 2). By interpreting and bringing together different data and timescales, the designers were able to reconstruct events related to the flash crash of 2010 which at the moment of their occurrence were imperceptible and incomprehensible to humans. These data visualizations therefore reveal processes and forces that are otherwise invisible and out of our reach – albeit with a significant delay.
Recent flash crashes and Money & Speed illustrate how technology puts pressure on our understanding and experience of time. We find ourselves in a new situation in which the power of computational time affects our perception, consciousness and agency in profound ways. This observation evokes a number of questions: What happens to our experience of and interaction with the world when machines can gather data on smaller and smaller scales, when the density of data increases and the speed at which data can be gathered and processed accelerates? How do we balance slow human perception with high-speed computation? Can we still understand the world as a division between past, present and future, or are we dealing with a technological extension of the present? If so, (how) can we experience this expanded present? Or are we doomed to live forever in the past, however near the present? Like media theorist Marshall McLuhan, I believe that analysing our contemporary technology through works of art and design can help us reflect on the shock of this moment and get a grip on the ungraspable.5
Big Data, Speed and the Sublime
It is not surprising that our contemporary digital technology, which is often hard to grasp, invites sublime responses. The speed with which enormous amounts of data can be processed exceeds our human capacity and confronts us with our own limitations. As philosopher Jos de Mul makes clear, the computer discloses a whole new range of sublime experiences, because it relies on databases that are astonishing in both magnitude and scope.6 For example, Google’s aim to archive and disclose the immense, seemingly infinite amount of information available on the Web is monumental, but also a myth, because, as author Alex Wright states, ‘there is simply no way for any search engine – no matter how powerful – to sift through every possible combination of data on the fly.’7 For that reason, media theorist Rowan Wilken sees Google Search as an attempt to ‘represent the unrepresentable’ – a description that captures the very essence of the sublime.8
A particular form of the sublime that is often connected to computer technologies is the mathematical sublime. The mathematical sublime is a concept developed by philosopher Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Judgement to describe encounters with extreme magnitude or vastness and ‘the estimation of magnitude by means of concepts of number.’9 For Kant, the experience of the mathematical sublime lies not in the object, but in our mental inability to comprehend its magnitude. While we might be able to apprehend its scope through reason and calculation, Wilken makes clear, we are unable to sense or imagine it, because, as Kant writes, ‘[t]his excess for the imagination […] is like an abyss in which it fears to lose itself.’10 It is not hard to connect the experience of the mathematical sublime to digital technologies that excel in gathering enormous amounts of data.
The artwork God’s Browser (2010) by Dutch media artist Geert Mul sheds light on how vast digital databases can evoke an experience that can be called mathematically sublime. God’s Browser is an interactive installation that, through the use of a theremin (electronic instrument), produces a stop-motion-like film with atonal music generated live from a database of 1.5 million images taken from the Internet between 2008 and 2010 (Fig. 3). Depending on the distance of the viewer’s hand to the theremin, the film runs faster, displaying more images, or slower, displaying fewer images. Visually similar images are put in succession, producing a visual flow, whose sequence, speed and level of detail can be manipulated by the user. The visual flow is made possible by image recognition software that automatically compares each image with every other image in the database, resulting in a total of 225 trillion comparisons.11
In God’s Browser it is not just the amount of data, but also the speed with which this data is processed that evokes a sublime experience. This is manifested in the relative speed of the images that flicker across the screen and their accompanying sound pattern. The closer the viewer’s hand moves to the theremin, the faster the images and sounds flow – almost becoming one indistinguishable blur of images and sounds, but not quite. In this sense, the work operates at the boundary of human perception, in a time frame that only just allows its users to register the individual images and tones.12 Like God’s Browser, the speed of our contemporary technology is not only testing the limits of our perception, it is also challenging our cognitive abilities. Much of our experience of the world today is shaped by the mental and physical activity of sifting through huge amounts of data at an ever-increasing pace. Mul’s work can be seen as a reflection on this by using a specific method to move through his database of images. Inspired by philosopher Guy Debord and the Situationist method of the dérive (literally ‘drift’), Mul calls his approach ‘data drift’: a ‘walk’ through the data that is both arbitrary (a random starting point) and highly structured (following a predetermined pattern).13
The fast, semi-random succession of countless images together with the title God’s Browser creates the impression that the work functions as a magical interface to the otherworldly, almost divine realm of the Internet: ‘a repository of innumerable terabytes of information, […] of users’ knowledge, thoughts, daily experiences, desires and fears.’14 The work presents itself as an oracle that produces a puzzling, incomprehensible answer. This view of the work fits in a broader tendency to attribute magical or mystical qualities to technology. As philosopher Haroon Sheikh explains, technology that is based on complex mathematics and big data can lead to superstition when we don’t understand how the connections between the data are made.15 This is enhanced by the fact that, ‘[s]ince the number of image combinations or sequences that these works allow for is pretty much infinite,’ as Mul explains, ‘the movements or choices made may even result in combinations that have never occurred before, and most likely won’t occur again.’16
Another artist whose work focuses on vast amounts of digitally generated images is the Italian artist Maurizio Bolognini. Already in 1988, Bolognini started a series of works called Programmed Machines, in which ultimately hundreds of computers were programmed to jointly generate a stream of continuously expanding graphic structures – and were left to run indefinitely. As Bolognini writes about his work:
I do not consider myself an artist who creates certain images, and I am not merely a conceptual artist. I am one whose machines have actually traced more lines than anyone else, covering boundless surfaces. I am not interested in the formal quality of the images produced by my installations but rather in their flow, their limitlessness in space and time, and the possibility of creating parallel universes of information made up of kilometres of images and infinite trajectories. My installations serve to generate out-of-control infinities.17
In 1992, Bolognini began to ‘seal’ his machines by filling the monitor buses with wax, thereby disabling graphic output so that the machines continued to produce images – images, however, that no one would ever see. In these Sealed Computers installations, the viewer encounters a series of grey 1990s desktop computers without monitors, distributed randomly on the floor of the exhibition space, connected to the electricity grid and networked together with Ethernet cables (Fig. 4). ‘[T]he humming and switching of ventilators and clicking hard drives are clearly audible,’ art historian Andreas Broeckmann writes, ‘giving the impression that some sort of calculation and exchange is going on in and between the terminals, but it is impossible for the visitor to know what the content of the computations might be.’18
This notion of invisibility connects back to Kant’s definition of the sublime:
For the sublime, in the strict sense of the word, cannot be contained in any sensuous form, but rather concerns ideas of reason, which although no adequate presentation of them is possible, may be excited and called into the mind by that very inadequacy itself which does admit of sensuous presentation.19
Bolognini’s Sealed Computers can be seen as an expression of this: the viewer is conscious that there is a command that has set off a process, yet (besides humming, switching and clicking sounds) neither the process nor its results can be perceived. The viewer can try to imagine the virtuality20 of all the possible images that are – and will be – generated by the computers, but will inevitably fail. Nonetheless, it is the inadequacy of her imagination that is triggered by – and thus takes form in – the presentation of Sealed Computers. This inadequacy of the imagination also relates to Lyotard’s view of the sublime as something unpresentable in sensible presentation. Following Kant and Burke, Lyotard argues that negative presentation or even non-presentation (when optical pleasure is reduced to near nothingness and a fear of privation or emptiness arises) is what promotes an infinite contemplation of infinity.21
While the negative presentation of Bolognini’s Sealed Computers can be seen as a trigger for a sublime experience, Lyotard fundamentally questioned whether new technologies can evoke sublime experiences. In a 1988 interview with Kunstforum, Lyotard explained that new technologies are characterized by determinedness and control: technological images emerge from a fully mediated relation; they are the result of codes and concepts inherent in systems of electronic (re)production. Since these technologies can never escape this fundamental determinedness, Lyotard argued, they are very unlikely to become sources of the sublime. In addition, the fear that new technologies often inspire has little to do with the fear that characterizes the sublime, because it is a form of narcissism and stems from a coping mechanism.22
Although I agree with Lyotard that digital technologies are at their base always determined, I do not think this inhibits a sublime experience. On the contrary, I think the sublime lies precisely in the clash between our ability to understand the fundamental determinedness of digital technology on the one hand and our inability to sense or grasp (the totality of) every possible variation or recombination generated (but not necessarily visualized)23 by computers on the other hand. Moreover, today’s technological sublime is not just theoretical, but practical too. While our fear may stem from a narcistic coping mechanism (the inability to deal with the products of our own making), this fear is no less real or terrifying.24 Complex contemporary technologies like high-frequency trading algorithms, lethal autonomous weapons systems and biotechnology become harder and harder to understand and control, and can pose actual threats to society.25
For an artist like Bolognini, the technological sublime resides predominantly in the field of info art and generative software, because these technologies produce something that is as much determined by the artist as it is under and beyond his control. In a sense, these technologies level the position of the artist and the viewer, who are both challenged by the force and scope of computation. ‘Computer-based technologies make available something which moves in the direction of transcending the artist,’ Bolognini writes, ‘creating a discrepancy and a disproportion between the artist and his/her work.’26 In sum, Sealed Computers reflects on the fact that contemporary digital technology can evoke a sublime experience precisely because of its inherent lack or dispensability of visual representation. This is underlined by the observation that contemporary technologies are designed not to signify, but to disappear into functionality.27 That is why the technological sublime is characterized by ‘blank and static activity,’ critic Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe writes, ‘intelligence without gestural expression, encoding without inflection or irregularity, pure measurement, and pure power. It is found in machines which resist personification but nonetheless interact with the human.’28
Trapped in Cycles of Machine Activity
In “Video Games and the Technological Sublime”, artist and writer Eugénie Shinkle argues how our everyday non-descript machines and unobtrusive interfaces shift a sublime experience characterized by elevation to one characterized by banality. Because digital technology is also a consumer product embedded in daily life, she observes, it becomes as resistant to meaning as any other mass-produced artefact. Hence, its ‘sublime experience is emptied of the transcendence that the term originally comprised: the initial glimpse of technology-as-other is followed by nothing more elevating than frustration,’ Shinkle writes. ‘Frustration […] that is born out of the tedium of the everyday; it signals a kind of brute return to a world where bodies and artefacts share in a mute and mundane – but fundamentally dissimilar – materiality.’29
This aspect of digital technology as a shockingly banal product of consumption points to another effect that digital technology has on our experience of time: a demand for 24/7 interaction with our devices that blends consumption with production and traps us in recurring cycles of activity. The artistic ‘clock’ All the Minutes (2014), programmed by Jonathan Puckey at Dutch design studio Moniker, shows how time is increasingly marked – and marketed – through social media. The website alltheminutes.com continuously displays tweets from all over the world about the current hour and minute of the day (Fig. 5). It provides the viewer a minute by minute glimpse of what people are, but mostly were, doing at that particular time – which mainly turns out to be the not so elevated activity of lying in bed at inappropriate hours, being hungry, tired or drunk.
In his book Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now (2013), media theorist Douglas Rushkoff explains how social media are increasingly used to shape personal histories and create a sense of narrative. In Moniker’s online clock, we can see how people use Twitter to both communicate and establish their identity. What is interesting, Puckey notes, is that ‘these days people choose to speak about exact minutes in relation to their lives – almost as if they could be doing something different every minute.’30 This illustrates Rushkoff’s theory that we have imposed industrial time on the digital universe. In the industrial age, the division of labour and the introduction of factory clocks caused people to sell their time rather than their products. Efficiency and speed became dominant values. But the computer is an asynchronous technology, Rushkoff argues, which should have allowed us to offload time-intensive tasks to our devices and to become less focused on time as the defining socio-economic value.31 As a result, we are always on and measure progress in terabytes of data, whose value is dependent on increasingly smaller units of time. Consequently, Rushkoff argues, ‘time becomes just another form of information – another commodity – to be processed.’32
Published in the same year, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep by art historian Jonathan Crary critically examines how the development from the industrial age to today’s network society involved the relentless incursion of the non-time of a 24/7 marketplace into every aspect of our daily lives. More than an empty catchphrase, for Crary, 24/7 means a denial of the rhythmic and periodic textures of human life and stands for a non-social model of machinic performance. This culminates in ‘the modeling of one’s personal and social identity, [which] has been reorganized to conform to the uninterrupted operation of markets, information networks, and other systems,’ he writes.33 According to Crary (who builds on Boltanski and Chiapello’s analysis of contemporary capitalism),34 these market forces promote an individual who is constantly engaged, interfacing, interacting, communicating, responding, or processing within a telematic environment.
In this context, All the Minutes can be considered a clock on multiple levels: it does not just tell you the time, it also shows you how people have been spending that time. This involves not just what they have been buying, but also what they have been doing with their time – every single minute of it. And since information is money, the more information – about smaller units of time – is produced, the more valuable it becomes.35 In this sense, All the Minutes can also been seen as a reflection on our times, which are characterized by dissolving borders between private and professional time, between work and consumption, and place high emphasis on activity for its own sake. Moniker’s Twitter-clock shows us the planet ‘as a non-stop work site or an always open shopping mall of infinite choices, tasks, selections, and digressions,’ to use Crary’s words.36
However, as both Rushkoff and Crary point out with their books, the promised compatibility or even harmonization between human time and the temporalities of digital networked systems remains unfulfilled. Instead, the results are disjunctions, fractures and continual disequilibrium – what Rushkoff calls ‘digiphrenia’ (digital + disordered condition of mental activity).37 Watching All the Minutes for a longer time, this sensation becomes palpable. Not only does it not make sense to watch everything that has been said on Twitter at some minute overlapping point in time (which is like watching live streaming stock quotes from yesterday), but it also quickly turns into a cacophony. Rushkoff compares this overwhelming amount of information to a ‘chaotic screech’ that is the result of a system that generates faster and faster feedback,38 while Crary calls it a ‘white-out condition’, since our inability to discern recurring patterns results in a lack of perceptual distinction and orientation.39
Time = Data at the Speed of Processing
Another artistic clock, entitled Zero Noon (2013) and designed by Mexican-Canadian artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, sheds light on the relative nature of time in our high-speed digital universe. Zero Noon is a digital clock that shows the current time in relation to hundreds of different real-time statistics scraped from the Internet (Fig. 6). The clock’s statistics (which come from government data, Harper’s Magazine, NGO’s, academic studies, financial institutions and other sources) are synchronized so that at noon they all start counting from zero. However, the statistics on each subject – ranging from the number of animal species that become extinct per day to the average number of daily financial transactions in Brazil – varies greatly. Consequently, Lozano-Hemmer’s clock runs at different speeds, depending on the particular data that is selected. This variation of the clock’s speed is shown by a number on the centre of the display, a clock handle that turns and a faint ‘ticking’ sound that can be heard every time the handle passes noon.40 Sometimes the number hardly increases and the clock’s handle passes very slowly; other times the number increases rapidly and is accompanied by a frantically rotating handle and a fast succession of ticking sounds.
The clock’s ‘eccentric metrics’, as Lozano-Hemmer calls it, reflects on how time is measured and expressed today: in data and the speed at which that data (and the speed itself) changes. Zero Noon still references an analogue clock – with its hours, clock handle and ticking sound – but in fact all of this information could have been left out. These visual cues function as a bridge; to understand the transformation of one type of time measurement to another. Today, time is measured through derivatives:41 by the type and amount of data that can be collected and processed by computers at a particular moment. Not only does Lozano-Hemmer’s clock reflect on how time is measured today, it also reflects on how we increasingly experience time: not as a passing of time, but as statistics – how much data is there at a certain moment compared to another moment?42
In addition, Zero Noon reveals the relativity of time that is the result of computers gathering and processing data. Depending on the density of data, time speeds up or slows down. Time is therefore no longer absolute43 in the sense that it is bound to the movement of the sun or the mechanics of (atomic) clocks, but is relative to the amount of processable data, which is constantly changing. Moreover, like digital media networks, Lozano-Hemmer’s clock operates through the constant accumulation of data and cycles of repetition: every time the clock is used (the user can select a particular dataset to represent the time) specific statistics are pulled from online data-gathering sources, and at noon the clock resets and starts counting from zero again.
The Expanded Present
The work TimeMaps (2011) by Dutch graphic designer Vincent Meertens also shows how the relative nature of time is affected, or even increased, by our technology. TimeMaps is a map of the Netherlands based on the time it takes to get around by train rather than the actual distance. Meertens map is live and interactive: it changes throughout the day, depending on your location and current travel times (including delays due to rush hour, bad weather conditions or malfunctioning). Generally speaking, this means that the map grows at night, when trains run infrequently or not at all, and shrinks during the day, when trains run on a regular, fast schedule.44 The map is plotted on a series of coloured rings that each represent 30 minutes of travel time. When generated from Amsterdam at 12:00 PM, the map resembles the geography of the Netherlands and displays only nine rings, which means that it takes a maximum of 4,5 hours to reach the far ends of the country (Fig. 7). However, when the map is generated from the same location at 12:00 AM, the country’s geography becomes unrecognizable: spread across 21 rings, it will take up to 11 hours to travel to the most remote locations (Fig. 8).
An overview of different versions of the map as seen from Eindhoven shows that the shape of the country varies greatly depending on your position in time and space (Fig. 9). As Meertens writes, ‘current maps, as we know them today, are obsolete. Thinking in time affects a map and hence the shape of the Netherlands also depending on the perspective from which we look.’45 This connects to the observation made by physicist Carlo Rovelli in his book The Order of Time (2018) that there is no such thing as real time. To ask, for example, which of Meertens’ time maps of the Netherlands displays the real time is meaningless, just as it is meaningless to ask which time is real: the time of humans or the time of computers. According to Rovelli, there is a vast multitude of times that are all relative to each other. Moreover, each time acts according to its own rhythm, according to place and according to speed, so time does not pass uniformly everywhere.46
In this sense, we should think of our present as a bubble that surrounds us, Rovelli explains. The extension of this bubble (our present) depends on the precision with which we determine time. Measured in nanoseconds, the present is defined only over a few metres. Measured in milliseconds, it is defined over thousands of kilometres.47 But, as Rovelli notes, because humans can distinguish tenths of a second only with great difficulty, ‘we can easily consider our entire planet to be like a single bubble where we can speak of the present as if it were an instant shared by us all.’48 While this is true on the level of human communication, the advent of high-speed computing (for example high-frequency trading) significantly affects our bubble, or what we consider to be the present.
The problem is, as Rovelli observes, that ‘we do not perceive the discrepancies between the different proper times of different clocks, and the differences in speed at which time passes at different distances’49 and so ‘[w]e do not have a grammar adapted to say that an event “has been” in relation to me but “is” in relation to you.’50 Perhaps precise time measurement technology in combination with data visualizations like Catalogtree’s Money & Speed, Lozano-Hemmer’s Zero Noon and Meertens’ TimeMaps allow us to get some sense of what is (or was) happening in time frames smaller than our own, which may cause us to reconsider the extent of our present. Perhaps, as Rovelli suggests and Lozano-Hemmer’s statistical clock shows, the time variable is not even required. ‘What is required,’ Rovelli writes, ‘are variables that actually describe it: quantities that we can perceive, observe and eventually measure. […] Quantities and properties that we see continuously changing. […] it needs to tell us only how the things that we see in the world vary with respect to each other.’51
Artworks like Mul’s God’s Browser and Bolognini’s Sealed Computers induce reflection on the shocking moments that are part of our contemporary technology. The vast amount of visual information that underlies both works, the speed with which the images are generated, and the seemingly infinite variations and endless connections of images escape our control, resist our comprehension and transform our experience of time. While the speed of our contemporary technology can evoke a sublime experience, there is also a risk that we fall into the deep black hole of our digitally sublime time and lose ourselves in the expanded present.52
This expanded present is characterized by a complex layering of temporalities, with multiple forms and scales of time; from human time to microtemporal computation. More than simply focusing on the now or collapsing past and future into a smooth and unified present, our digital technologies do the opposite: they expand the scale of time measurement, increase and speed up the amount of data that can be processed, but also allow past data to circulate and become new again. In other words, through digital technology, the present fans out into a range of different temporalities. Our extended present is therefore not a smooth uniform whole, but rather an uneven non-simultaneous now.
Consequently, there are many different ways to measure time that do not themselves align and any visualization of the activity of computers in milliseconds, microseconds or even nanoseconds will always be design after-the-fact.53 Yet designing ‘real-time’ (or better still: ‘microtime’) visualizations has never been more important. It enables us to perceive and understand – albeit with a significant delay – what is happening in the parallel world of high-speed computing. What any such microtime visualization should take into consideration is the diversity of time scales that coexist in – and the complex layering of temporalities that make up – our expanded present. Artworks and designs like Mul’s God’s Browser, Catalogtree’s Money & Speed, Lozano-Hemmer’s Zero Noon, Moniker’s All the Minutes and Meertens’ TimeMaps can offer insight into the different scales, rhythms and speeds that influence our experience of time. In addition, it becomes important to try to conceive of a time frame that cannot only be experienced individually, but that can also be shared collectively.
While the increased relativity of time as a result of variations in the density and speed of data can be considered a hindrance, visualizing this relativity is also essential for understanding differences and relations. Lozano-Hemmer’s Zero Noon and Meertens TimeMaps show that time does not pass uniformly everywhere and hence make us aware of our own (limited) bubble. Ultimately, it is up to us to examine how (far) we want to extend that bubble and what we consider to be part of our present. One thing we should not forget is that we are the ones living in time.54 While it is far from easy, we have to determine the balance and decide how we want to design for, with or against our microtemporal technologies.
Paul Virilio, The Vision Machine (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), p. 66.
Ibid., pp. 69-70. Italics original.
Ibid., pp. 73-74.
Emphasis original. Mark B. N. Hansen, Feed-Forward: On the Future of Twenty-First-Century Media (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2015), pp. 138-139.
In his book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964), Marshall McLuhan explained how ‘[t]he effects of technology do not occur at the level of opinions or concepts, but alter sense ratios or patterns of perception steadily and without resistance. The serious artist is the only person able to encounter technology with impunity [freedom],’ he writes, ‘because he is an expert aware of the changes in sense perception.’ Art offers indispensable perceptual training and judgement, McLuhan states, and is therefore of the utmost importance to the study and development of media. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (Berkeley: Ginko Press, 1964), p. 31.
Jos de Mul, “The (Bio)Technological Sublime”, Diogenes, No. 59 (2012), p. 36.
Alex Wright, “Exploring a ‘Deep Web’ that Google Can’t Grasp”, New York Times, 23 February 2010, https://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/23/technology/23iht-23search.20357326.html.
Rowan Wilken, “‘Unthinkable Complexity’: The Internet and the Mathematical Sublime”, in The Sublime Today: Contemporary Readings in the Aesthetic, ed. Gillian B. Pierce (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012), p. 206.
Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 81.
Ibid., p 88; Wilken, “‘Unthinkable Complexity’”, p. 194.
“Case study – Geert Mul, ‘God’s Browser’ (2010)”, LIMA, accessed 28 November 2018, http://www.li-ma.nl/site/article/case-study-geert-mul-god’s-browser-2010.
In this way, Mul’s work resembles Ryoji Ikeda’s work Test Pattern (2008-present), which also operates at the boundary of human perception. As Ikeda writes: ‘This audiovisual work [Test Pattern] presents intense flickering black and white imagery […] The velocity of the moving images is ultra-fast, some hundreds of frames per second, so that the work provides a performance test for the audio and visual devices, as well as a response test for the audience’s perceptions.’ Ryoji Ikeda, “ryoji ikeda | test pattern”, accessed 18 December 2018, http://www.ryojiikeda.com/project/testpattern/.
Geert Mul and Eef Masson, “Data-Based Art, Algorithmic Poetry: Geert Mul in Conversation with Eef Masson”, TMG – Journal for Media History 21, no. 2 (2018), pp. 170-186.
“God’s Browser”, V2_ Lab for the Unstable Media, accessed 24 November 2018, http://v2.nl/archive/works/gods-browser.
Haroon Sheikh, ‘Algoritmen kunnen toveren’, NRC, 23 November 2018.
Mul and Masson, “Data-Based Art”, p. 180.
Maurizio Bolognini, Machines: Conversations on Art & Technology (Milan: Postmedia Books, 2012), p. 10 (emphasis mine).
Andreas Broeckmann, Machine Art in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2016), p. 115.
Quoted in De Mul, “(Bio)Technological Sublime”, p. 34.
I use the term ‘virtuality’ like Jos de Mul to refer to the potential or the possible. This is not to say that the virtual is therefore unreal. It points to the vast number of possible states of which some might have been realized. Bolognini himself does not favour the term ‘virtual’, because it is often used synonymously with unreal, fictitious, merely potential, without any concrete existence. Yet his Programmed Machines produce actual images, despite the fact that in Sealed Computers they can’t be seen. ‘[T]he flow of images produced by these machines are “real” in the sense that they go beyond the pure intellectual stimulation and have an existence independent of the observer […] the work of the machines tends effectively to construct parallel universes which are non-material but real.’ Bolognini, Machines, p. 26.
Jean-François Lyotard, ‘The Sublime and the Avant-Garde’, in The Bloomsbury Anthology of Aesthetics, ed. Joseph Tanke and Colin McQuillan (New York: Bloomsbury, 2012), p. 537.
Jean-François Lyotard, “Die Erhabenheit ist das Unkonsumierbare: Ein Gespräch mit Christine Pries,” Interview by Christine Pries, Kunstforum, Bd. 100 Kunst und Philosophie (1988), https://www.kunstforum.de/artikel/die-erhabenheit-ist-das-unkonsumierbare/.
Lyotard argued that the sublime is not present in technology, because everything happens on a screen, but both God’s Browser and Sealed Computers point to what is off-screen, to the processes that occur ‘below’ or beyond the screen, in the invisible realm. In that sense – and in contrast to Lyotard’s view – this kind of digital art is very much about the inconsumable. Lyotard, “Die Erhabenheit”.
According to Lyotard, ‘das Erhabene kann als Gefühl nur gefühlt werden, weil das Subjekt gleichzeitig ohnmächtig vor dieser Unordnung steht. Doch wenn man die Unordnungen der Natur mit diesem enormen Speicherungsapparat ins Innere eines Kontrollsystems interiorisiert, dann sind wir überhaupt nicht ohnmächtig, ganz im Gegenteil. Denn dieser enorme Bearbeitungsapparat bietet die Möglichkeit, passend auf die Unordnung der Natur zu reagieren, die er gewissermaßen schon antizipiert hat.’ Lyotard, “Die Erhabenheit”. However, while technology may indeed prepare us for natural disasters, this does not necessarily mean that nature can no longer evoke a sublime experience, nor that the technology will prepare us for events caused by the technology itself (like a flash crash), which can leave us utterly powerless too.
Lyotard’s scepticism about the technological sublime is understandable, since the sublime was theorized as technological only from 1994 onwards. In American Technological Sublime (1994), historian David Nye explores for the first time how the experience of the sublime has gradually shifted from nature to technology. David Nye, American Technological Sublime (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994). Later, authors like Mario Costa, Vincent Mosco, Rowan Wilken and Jos de Mul also engage with the sublime experience evoked by technology through concepts like the ‘digital sublime’, ‘mathematical sublime’ and ‘biotechnological sublime’. See Mario Costa, Il sublime technologico (Rome: Castelvecchi, 1998); Vincent Mosco, The Digital Sublime (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004); de Mul, “(Bio)Technological Sublime”; Wilken, “‘Unthinkable Complexity’”.
Maurizio Bolognini, “Postdigitale – Maurizio Bolognini”, accessed 5 January 2018, http://www.bolognini.org/bolognini_PDIG.htm.
Eugénie Shinkle, “Video Games and the Technological Sublime”, Tate Papers, no. 14 (Autumn 2010), accessed 25 September 2018, https://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/tate-papers/14/video-games-and-the-technological-sublime.
Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, Beauty and the Contemporary Sublime (New York: Allworth Press, 1999), p. 142.
Shinkle, “Video Games”.
Jonathan Puckey, quoted in Tyler Hayes, “‘It’s 2:40 PM And I’m Drunk’: The Strange, Voyeuristic Novel Mined From Twitter”, Fast Company, 12 May 2014, accessed 18 December 2018, https://www.fastcompany.com/3039380/its-240-pm-and-im-drunk-the-strange-voyeuristic-novel-mined-from-twitter.
Douglas Rushkoff, Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now (New York: Penguin, 2013), pp. 80-82, 93.
Ibid., p. 86.
Jonathan Crary, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (London: Verso, 2013), p. 9.
Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism (London: Verso, 2005).
The use or consumption of social media cannot be seen separately from the production of value. Information published on social media is public and therefore available to market researchers that can monitor and predict behaviour using this information, which they can then sell to companies to develop personalized advertisements.
Crary, 24/7, p. 17.
Ibid., p. 31; Rushkoff, Present Shock, p. 75.
Ibid., p. 208-210
Crary, 24.7, p. 34
Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, “Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Project ‘Zero Noon’”, accessed 24 December 2018, http://www.lozano-hemmer.com/zero_noon.php.
Rushkoff, Present Shock, p. 86.
An example of this is the frequently applied indication of the amount of time it takes to read an article on the Web: ‘a 4-minute read’ or ‘one-minute read articles.’
Of course, as Albert Einstein demonstrated with his theory of relativity, time never was absolute.
Suzanne Labarre, “Gorgeous Travel Planner Shows Times, Rather Than Distances,” Fast Company, 10 November 2011, accessed 12 February 2019, https://www.fastcompany.com/1665409/gorgeous-travel-planner-shows-times-rather-than-distances.
Vincent Meertens, “TimeMaps”, accessed 12 February 2019, http://www.vincentmeertens.com/project/timemaps/.
Carlo Rovelli, The Order of Time (London: Penguin Random House, 2018), pp. 15, 81.
An example Rovelli uses to explain the relativity (and small bandwidth) of the present is a conversation with a sister: ‘The light takes time to reach you, let’s say a few nanoseconds – a tiny fraction of a second – therefore, you are not quite seeing what she is doing now but what she was doing a few nanoseconds ago. If she is in New York and you phone her from Liverpool, her voice takes a few milliseconds to reach you, so the most you can claim to know is what your sister was up to a few milliseconds ago. Not a significant difference, perhaps.’ Rovelli, Order of Time, p. 38. Indeed, this delay is not a significant difference to us, but the delay in perceiving high-frequency algorithmic trading on the stock market is important and can actually become a considerable real-life problem.
Rovelli, Order of Time, p. 40.
Ibid., p. 171.
Ibid., p. 99.
Ibid., pp. 102-103 (emphasis original).
Which is actually a desired result for many social media companies that aim to attract as many eyeballs as they can and keep them focused on the screen.
While it would perhaps theoretically be possible to visualize the activity of computers in microseconds (if we had hardware that could display content with the speed of one million frames per second), we would simply not be able to see it, because it would turn into a blur before our eyes.
As George Dyson, Carlos Rovelli and Douglas Rushkoff also note. See George Dyson, Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe (New York: Pantheon Books, 2012); Rovelli, Order of Time; Douglas Rushkoff, Team Human (New York: Norton, 2019).
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