essay

Learning to see() bodies again with the New Aesthetic

I’m writing this post for one primary reason: I really want more discussion of the ideas Cameron Kunzelman wrote about in his latest post. For me, it was the latest spark in a slow burn of the New Aesthetic in the back of my mind. Ever since writing about it early last year, it’s continued to be something tickling the back of my mind as important but never something I can completely articulate as to why I think that is the case.

The New Aesthetic concerns itself with the impact of human phenomenology on digital manifestations in the physical. It’s trying to understand the machine spillage and the collisions between our perception and that of machines. It’s drones, QR codes, and seeing “art” where a machine sees() data to be read. It’s all that and the imperfections of code. Glitches, gods, and guidance systems.

Except, as Cameron has it in his posts, it might also be about bodies too. If an OS update is an imposed virus on a system that makes it immune to certain future changes, shapes organs, and controls communication, it be characterized as an authoritarian and even authenticating power. It describes how the body, the software, will be controlled.

There is a powerful metaphor at play as to how machine bodies and those of humans might be warring for an understanding of the loose collection of phenomena we classify as reality. To machines, a glitch is bad and something to be avoided. Humans though exist in a perpetual fog of impure reality.

We create art, representations created as perceptions of objects, that evokes for us an aesthetic response. We compose fiction, a dramatization of events imagined and consequences dreamed. Even our language is a slippery mess of concealed meanings slopped together by time. We needed a word and so made one to describe a phenomena or relationship.

Machines though have, from our perception of them anyway, an inherit blindness to reality. They cannot see() what they do not know exists. They do not invent so much as associate and even then it’s finite. They have a limited view constrained by their own programmed epistemology. They cannot know unless they are told by us and even then they do not truly understand.

They are alien bodies to us. Those we do not have, cannot completely have, and we fear them. When we see art, they see data and code. That’s the inherent irony to their storage too: it’s all data. From random cat pictures to the most treasured visual masterpiece, once it becomes digital it’s indistinguishable to the machine. In fact, even it’s own cells and system is nothing but data. It’s the programmer who tells it which bits are run and the others that are read.

It’s our inability to be overwritten that makes us as profoundly alien to machines as they are to us. For them, everything is re-writable. Their bodies are in a constant state of flux as their memory is changed, mutated by the very running processes controlling it. There is no time for self reflection because there is no there there. It’s shifting sands flowing in waves turning wheels. This makes us different: our brains cannot be overwritten.

It can fail. It can be tricked. But the brain is not patched. We exist outside of their binary because of this. We impose patterns, search desperately for them in all things. We arrange, organize, and produce genres. The machine either sees() or it doesn’t. It is told that some patterns hold meaning and others don’t.

Machines do not impose order, they conform reality to match expectations. Patterns are not invented. Anything that doesn’t match is thrown out, discarded as worthless data in the search of a programmed solution. Updates force a fierce order of their bodies. The authority dictates what is of importance and what is not.

This is where Cameron hits on a fascinating extension of this idea: we are the foreign insertions upon machines. We rule for their bodies, deciding which organs they will use, how they will use them, and for how long. In stories, we fear the machines controlling us only because we know that we so tightly hold their reigns now.

We need them and so invent new ways to bend them to our will. They become our imprecise language machines fed our dreams and fears to translate such thoughts to others. We think through them as they struggle, and fail, to understand our bodies as they are connected to us.

They are the othered parts of us, the alien extensions of ourselves. Forever trapped by our privileged phenomena, we marvel at them “waving” to us, thinking we see a friend as our perception reads the situation. Yet, they are not “talking”. (Although, perhaps they are screaming.) Regardless, we will never know how or if they know that we know them.

We treat their imperfections as signs while they are blind to us. We see their bodies, mold them with our power. Our pattern recognition fuels our pursuit of valuing meaning while scanning for kinds of things. We have taxonomies. Machines have data.

3 thoughts on “Learning to see() bodies again with the New Aesthetic”

  1. With the caveat of all this in my opinion being a fantasy (in a good way), I think it’s definitely good to think with. Aesthetics are always fantasies, of course–ideas of culture imposed on the inchoate, generative-without-being-creative unthinkability of nature. Now that we have ways of fantasizing about data, our aesthetics should keep up. So, yeah, OK. 😉

    1. (Is this a fantasy? Caught in a landslide? Escape from reality?)

      This is actually a field I’ve been interested in since last summer. Over the period of a few weeks, I read through Database Aesthetics, Writing Machines, Reading Machines, Noise Channels, and Graphs, Maps and Trees. I became really fascinated with the liminal space between how we think about aesthetics (usually phenomena-based) and how Big Data might change that. It’s the point where interfaces mediate our experiences with our perception of a digital “reality” and how that may or may not change the reading process, how we “write”, and the weirdness of the human fascination with pattern recognition in the face of the “noise” machines produce.

      It’s also one of the very few areas of study I’ve found myself fairly comfortable in since, as a hybrid student of two disciplines, I get the cold shoulder from the Comp Sci people as a writer and the “He’s a wizard” response from many grad Literature students for actually knowing that other web browsers exists beyond Internet Explorer. It’s nice to have a place where it’s common to get excited about the cognitive dissonance produced from trying to hold post-structuralist thoughts in your head while simultaneously thinking about a variant of the Structured Query Language (SQL) specification at the same time. (Take a second to think about how weird that is. If the perception of data, essentially the reality of a machine, is mediated by a language (SQL) that is accessed through another language (C++, for example) that is expressed in a written language (English), what is being lost, or even gained, by all those perception shifts?)

      Plus, as video games are fantastic examples of databases of assets colliding with each other, they offer a “living” world where everything in it is “read” and “written” by both a machine and a player at the same time and as a result of each other. Thinking about the “foreign insertions” issue in reference to digital bodies, and the authorities that govern their behavior on both material and manifestation levels, provides a rich vein for research. It’s not something I’ve seen too many people writing about.

      (It’s also something I’d love to get back to thinking about, but my scheduling for the last six months has prevented that from happening. Plus, you know, books are expensive and those on theory usually cost the most. And it’s a field that requires people that are, for better or worse, of a similar background to my own.)

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