Alien as Other as Friend: New Aesthetics and Labels

Ian Bogost has a new book. Did you know that? I did. I will be buying it at some future point and will, most likely, enjoy it as I have his other books. If you didn’t know that he had a new book though his post over on The Atlantic would seem very odd. Over a couple thousand words, he talks about The New Aesthetics by saying that it needs to go farther, that it needs to extend into what his book is all about: “Ontography”, the relationships between things.

Having not read his book, as I said, I can’t say if I agree with him or not. I’m slightly annoyed, if nothing else, that he takes a point someone else had made, that the New Aesthetics might better to shift slightly to “imagining the relations between things in the world” instead of the relationship primary about computers and people, and uses that to mostly talk about his book and his ideas. Once I have read his book, which I will no doubt write about, I’ll have a better idea at how good this is to fitting what he has been saying.

However, I don’t want to talk about being annoyed, at the moment, with something Ian Bogost mostly wrote about. I, instead, want to highlight some points I think are definitely worth talking about and how he probably has a good handle on what this could mean for the future of looking at the spillage between the virtual and real — and if that distinction is even important anymore.

“That is to say, the aesthetics of the New Aesthetic are human aesthetics, appearances and interactions that we people can experience and that, in so doing, trouble our understanding of what it means to live in the twenty-first century.”

He’s right, of course, about this. Right now, the New Aesthetics is all about, well, human aesthetics and reactions to situations and simulations. He hits on the very idea of why this links to what he is thinking about when he mentions the aggregation of parts into a new whole. It’s what James Bridle is doing with the tumblr account: collecting things.

Bridle is pointing out items that bridge between the two worlds in interesting ways. The “eruption into the physical” that Bruce Sterling talked about is being put into a package so that others can see, comment and catalog. This is how the New Aesthetics exists, as people talking about machines interacting with people through machines. We use one set of software to allow us to communication about errors in another. We make the patterns computer cannot see.

“The problem isn’t that computers are going to rise up and take over, but that we do not and will never understand computers on their own terms. We will never understand them as computers. We will never understand the experience of computers as computers experience things. Nor anything else, for that matter–bats, dolphins, automobiles, or bags of Frito-Lay Garden Salsa Sun Chips.

Being withdraws from access. There is always something left in reserve, in a thing. The best we can do as humans is to respect the hidden mystery of the experience of things, and speculate metaphorically about how an object like a computer or a pound cake encounters the world.”

It’s this point, in my own little take on the New Aesthetics, that he hit me the hardest on in my thinking on it. Of course, the overlap between the worlds is an interesting place to explore. We are constantly going to get miscommunication, on either side, to speak about and dissect in the process of discovering what means to be in either world. Yes, that will always happen.

However, and this is what he talks about in the quote, we might want to expand to other things too. Because, we will never understand computers — and they might never understand us too. We see the world in completely different ways. While we see, as I said the other day, in curved ways, computers see squares, infinite boxes to check the status of. We, humans, are radically different from computers. In that way, they are, and might always be, an Other for us examine in respect to ourselves.

And if computers are this alien to us, that they are the Other, are they also, in a strange way, a friend too? After all, we rely on them constantly for communication, for companionship in the dark spaces. The algorithms aggregate and we read it, never thinking much about the fact that it is learning about us in the process. Nothing too insidious, just preferring some items over others. They help us know what we might want next.

How odd we must seem to them, is what Bogost is getting at with that idea. They seem Other to us, let we let them into our lives. From the other side, is the relationship just as bizarre? If they could speak to us about their experiences, would we understand things in the same manner? The life of a computer, we might find out, is a very lonely one as it sits unused for large portions of the day.

“For another part, the New Aesthetic fails the ultimate test of novelty: that of disruption and surprise. Misguided as they may seem a century hence, avant-garde movements like Futurism and Dada were not celebrating industrialism nor lamenting war so much as they were replacing familiar principles with unfamiliar ones on the grounds that the familiar had failed. The New Aesthetic is not surprising, but expected. After all, the artists now wield the same data access APIs, mapping middleware, and computer vision systems as the corporations. In some cases, the artists are the corporations.”

This is it. The New Aesthetic, as he makes a very good point about, isn’t new. When I first read about it the other day, I realized this too. It’s been around for some time now, we are just now getting around to labeling it as such. It has always been about finding things that computers make or we make in the process of dealing with computers. Now, we have a word for this collection: New Aesthetic.

It’s also not disruptive. It’s aggregation of found things, not making new ones. So far, it’s about knowing, when you see something, that it might fit the model, not creating something from the tenants of the ideas. It’s not really a movement, as Bogost mentions, unless it tries to move on to something else. All the data is there, the access is just in seeing the patterns and putting them together from the glitches and reactions.

We might have been looking at pixels and computer-aided vision for so long that we no longer see the difference much between the before and after. What was the world before computers even like? If you see pixel art or a computer glitch now, do you think about the time before they were commonplace? Will, more importantly, the next generation see this same difference?

If the New Aesthetic is about showing how computers saw, what will it mean in two years? In five years? A decade from now, will computers be so a part of our lives that we hardly think about the spillage? Will it become yet another part of how we view the world? As we continue to puzzle how a computer might think, maybe we should, instead, consider other objects too.

If we will never understand how a computer sees, maybe it will always be an Other to us, a thing a part of, yet separate from us. Then again, we have these alien objects around us already. Do we know how a keyboard thinks? How about a mouse? What is the connection between how they see us and how we view them? If everything is just an object, maybe it’s worth trying to think more about how we think about things — and how they might be thinking about us too.