I am writing some entries (“Anthropocene”, “Medianatures”, “The Earth”) for the forthcoming Posthuman Glossary, edited by Rosi Braidotti and Maria Hlavajova. The project and some of the entries were the topic of seminars during May/June in Utrecht in a row of seminars, and the book I believe is expected to be out later in 2016.
Here’s one of the text – although in draft form (and not copy edited); a short text on the Earth. One can say topical for so many reasons: issues of climate change/disaster, as well as the perhaps linked enthusiastic discovery of Earth-like planets outside our solar system – a recurring theme in our current public discourse about space and science.
The Earth is a planet, of an age of about 4.54 billion years and defined by its geological formations, density, biosphere, hydrosphere and an atmosphere that sustains life. It’s more than a world for humans but an Earth that is defined by its life-sustaining conditions and its planetary relations (Woodard 2015). On a planetary level, it is one complex dynamic system where biosphere, atmosphere and many of the geological spheres interact; on an extra-planetary level it is as dynamic, part of the gravitational pull, periodic rotation, cosmic rays and the radiation of the sun. Buckminster Fuller coined it “spaceship earth” marking the speculative beginnings of post-planetary design: ‘We are all astronauts’ (Fuller 1969: 14) who spin in space traveling 60 000 miles an hour, in the midst of rich non-human life as well as the intensive relations to other planets and the sun.
The Earth is also a complex ecosystem where one should never mistake humans to be the centre of action but merely one part in a larger loop of processes. One way to refer to it is by way of a ‘holarchy arisen from the self-induced synergy of combination, interfacing, and recombination’ (Margulis and Sagan 1995:18).
Besides the life of the organic and the inorganic spheres, it is also a mediasphere by which we don’t have to think only of the Jesuit fantasies of the immaterial reality of cognition such as Teilhard de Chardin did–or what cyber culture then rehashed with a dose of Silicon Valley excitement–but the different visualisation systems that give us operational representations of the planet. This is the view of the Earth since the Vostok I-space flight in 1961: the first human that is orbiting the planet and able to describe the ground-detached view. It’s the Earth that features in the cover of the first Whole Earth Catalogue in 1968, and in the inside pages hailing the imagery of the satellite era: the necessary coffee table book of 243 NASA images, in full color, from the Gemini flights in 1965—for only $7. The Earth furnishes the home.
Our understanding of the Earth is mediated by a variety of representational techniques and is itself a product of the technological era. ‘They alone shall possess the earth who live from the powers of the cosmos’, quoted Walter Benjamin (2008: 58) in his short text ‘To the Planetarium’ from 1928, analysing technological ways of organising the physis – both the gaze upwards, and from up there, back downwards. The satellite based images of the Earth since 1960s and leading to the famous Blue Marble of 1972 (Apollo 17-flight) mark subsequent examples in the series of images that define the Earth from the space. The escape velocity (Virilio 1997) that allows accelerating objects from airplanes to space ships to leave the Earth’s gravity bound surface is also what then allows us to see the Earth from above. The old etymology of the Earth as eorþe referring to something different from the heavens and the underground gives way to a dynamic of vectors where the Earth becomes defined from the heavens. The energetic powers of acceleration transform into the visual survey from above. As Fuller puts it, writing in late 1960s, ‘However, you have viewed more than did pre-twentieth-century man, for in his entire lifetime he saw only one-millionth of the Earth’s surface.’ This media-enhanced understanding of the Earth seeps into the biological work of Margulis and Sagan even, when they narrate the new metamorphosis of visual epistemology that this technological thrusting and imaging brings about. It brings forth an imaginary of the orbital that is shared by satellites and astronauts: ‘As if floating dreamily away from your own body, you watch the planet to which you are now tied by only the invisible umbilicus of gravity and telecommunication.’ (Margulis and Sagan 1995: 18). They use such images and narratives to contribute to the idea of holarchic view where the human is part of the micro- and macrocosms. For them, the event is a sort of a planetary level mirror image that carries Jacques Lacan concept from babies to space: to perceive ‘the global environment’ as the ‘mirror stage of our entire species’ (Ibid.)
Much more than an echo of psychoanalytic stage for the planetary design, the mediated vision turned back on the earth itself was instrumental to a range of political, scientific and military considerations. Seeing the Earth from space was one such thing that had an effect on climate research (also impacted by the nuclear testing, see Edwards 2010). It had an effect on military planning and geopolitical evaluation. It opened up again a holistic view of the planet as one although at the same time as a complex system of non-linear kind. It contributed to a variety of cultural moods and movements. Even the gaze to the otherworldly away from the Earth was a way to sharpen the focus on the planet; But the technological gaze toward deep space with telescopes such as Hubble was never just about space and the interplanetary worlds. Geographical surveys benefited from the developed lenses and image processing of satellite-enabled remote sensing. (Cubitt 1998: 45-49) The perspective back to the Earth has enabled the fine-tuning accuracy of corporate digital maps such as Google Earth and a massive military surveillance system too.
The Earth is constantly targeted by satellites and remote sensing systems such as the Planetary Skin institute. The institute is one among many systems that offer polyscalar view of multiciplity of processes for analysis. It boasts with the ideal of reading these as “scalable big data” that benefits communities and can “increase, food, water, and energy security and protect key ecosystems and biodiversity” (quoted in Bishop 2016). Alongside systems as the Hewlett Packard’s Central Nervous System for the Earth (CeNSE) it creates real-time surveillance systems that intend more than mere observation. As Ryan Bishop (ibid.) argues, these are massive level systems for constant data-based interpretation of the various scales of the Earth that indeed define a specific corporate-security angle on a planetary scale.
Our relations with the Earth are mediated through technologies and techniques of visualization, sonification, calculation, mapping, prediction, simulation, and so forth: it is primarily through operationalized media that we grasp the Earth as an object of analysis. Even the surface of the earth and geological resources used to be mapped through surveys and field observation. But now this advances through remote sensing technologies (see also Parikka 2015). One can argue that they are in a way extensions of Leibniz’s universal calculus, which offered one way to account for the order of the earth, including its accidents like earthquakes (such as the infamous 1755 in Lisbon). But as the architect-theorist Eyal Weizman argues, this calculation of the Earth is now less organized according to the divine order of Christian Deity and more about the “increasingly complex bureaucracy of calculations that include sensors in the subsoil, terrain, air, and sea, all processed by algorithms and their attendant models.” (Weizman, Davis, Turpin 2013: 64) Also practices of meteorology are to be understood as such cultural techniques and media operations that order the dynamics of the sky as analyzable data. The terrestrial opens up through what circulates above it, the atmosphere becomes a way to understand the ground and the orbit is where the understanding of the Earth begins by way of massive data-driven remote sensing systems. The nomos of the Earth that defines its geopolitics is one that reaches out to the heavenly spheres as much as to the multi-scalar data-intensive operations (see Bratton 2015).
Benjamin, W. (2008) ‘To the Planetarium.’ In Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 58-59.
Bishop, R. (2016) ‘Felo de se: The Munus of Remote Sensing’. Boundary2, forthcoming (estimated 2016).
Bratton, B. (2015) The Stack. On Software and Sovereignty. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Cubitt, S. (1998) Digital Aesthetics. London: Sage.
Edwards, P. (2010) The Vast Machine. Computer Models, Climate Data, and the Politics of Global Warming. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Fuller, B. (1969) ‘Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth’ Online at http://designsciencelab.com/resources/OperatingManual_BF.pdf (originally published in 1968).
Margulis, L. and Sagan, D. (1995) What is Life? New York: Simon & Schuster.
Parikka, J. (2015) A Geology of Media. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Virilio, P. (1997) Open Sky. Trans. Julie Rose. London: Verso.
Weizman, E.; Davis, H. and Turpin, E. (2013), “Matters of Calculation: Eyal Weizman in Conversation with Heather Davis and Etienne Turpin,” in Architecture in the Anthropocene: Encounters among Design, Deep Time, Science, and Philosophy, ed. Etienne Turpin. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Open Humanities Press, 63-82.
Woodard, B. (2015) ‘Less World to be Ourselves. A Note on Postapocalyptic Simplification’ E-Flux Supercommunity, August 6, http://supercommunity.e-flux.com/texts/less-world-to-be-ourselves-a-note-on-post-apocalyptic-simplification/.
Napoleon III’s wife was filled with awe. “De ma vie, je n’ai vue rien de plus beau”, voiced Eugenie de Montijo at the opening festivities of the Suez Canal. I’ve never seen anything as beautiful.
As Sebastian Gießmann notes about the scene, it was such a crystallisation of aesthetic sentiment with colonial aspirations, something that set the bar for the 19th century technological enthusiasm for progress and the planetary projects that defined a new global order. It was, after all, that the ceremonial boats passing through the canal were followed up by one last one; the one that lay down the telegraphic cable. Lewis Mumford’s later analysis coined already the late 19th century’s material basis as not national not continental but planetary – and this drive was visible in many of the transport projects and technological engineering too; planetary but always tied to a variety of geopolitical interests.
Gießmann’s extensive Die Verbundenheit der Dinge [rougly translates as the “connection of things” but there are many nice connotations for the word Verbundenheit in German, from proximity to affect, communion and bond] narrates such scenes but more broadly speaking the study functions as an inspiring cultural history of nets and networking. Even if “network theory” has been debated for 10-15 years, Gießmann is able to bring interesting angles to the material, symbolic and imaginary aspects of a truly historical view to webs, nets and more. Besides being highly readable, Die Verbundenheit der Dinge works through interesting case studies from classical literature and the history of nets in hunting, as traps, also to the legal aspects of “binding” contractual states; to spiders and webs, infrastructural networking such as canals, and onto the more computational 20th century. The diagrammatics of operational research offer a pre-internet view to how information handling was to be rationalised in visual circuits; connections of nodes and switches. Gradually the management of optimised information messages became the focus of the technical diagrams.
The book has a wonderful way of being able to account for the material and yet also aware of the cultural history of the concept in its changing forms from visual to the informatic. Gießmann is drawing on the cultural techniques-tradition of German theory in many ways. However, what distinguishes the book are the specific examples elaborated. Through addressing such historically far-reaching plans of planetary networks as the canals of the 19th century etc., the book is able to remind that at its core, networking is also currently about big infrastructural projects; Gießmann notes the early use of “networks” in the 1827 planning of Paris watersystems and it is clear that this is a lineage that is of important focus: the infrastructural engineering both of the urban realm and the connections across national interest space but also in close relation with non-governmental corporations. In many ways Gießmann’s book speaks to the same themes as recently translated study by Markus Krajewski, World Projects.
Die Verbundenheit der Dinge acknowledges the importance of mathematics and geometry in the modern history of networks, but does not cave-in to the a-historical definitions of networks that we have grown accustomed to hearing; nodes and edges might be important but also need to be historicized as the specific epistemological frameworks in which such connectivity becomes mobilized over the past 200-250 years.
Networking divides into a variety of constitutive cultural techniques such as synchronisation and switching; there is a technical element well presented in this analysis, which accompanies the political and social history. The technological becomes embedded in a history consisting of various scales of agencies. The partly automated networking finds one of its important historical events in the 1890s with the patent for Automatic Telephone-Exchange, which with the help of the switching cylinder slowly replaces the parasite in between – the telephone operator girl.
Indeed, Die Verbundenheit der Dinge alludes to how things are not purloined by humans anymore- like in the much often quoted Allan Poe’s The Purloined Letter as one ur-scene of communications. Letters and messages get lost in other ways than human hands in the technological networks by way of transmission problems as an effect of the automated situation over noisy lines. Information theory but also concrete engineering solutions emerge as one key switch in the history of networking. From capture of animals the emerging networks and later the web become an infrastructural arrangement that now sets the tone for the Internet of Things as capture.
Curated by Dr Ebru Yetiskin, the exhibition Waves (Dalgalar) is definitely worth the visit at Blok Art Space in Istanbul. The exhibition features several of the key emerging names in the Istanbul technological art scene; beautifully installed across fitting space, Waves includes an implicit media historical reference in the midst of new works of rhythm, interaction and indeed, plenty of strings attached. The theme of strings comes out beautifully in how some of the work is installed, especially Candaş Şişman’s Re-conn-act with its vertical string pillars that offer a collective acoustics space and invite to touch this vibrating environment.
By addressing the ubiquity of the wave form as a key symbol from sound waves to brain waves, financial cycles/fluctuations and social movements, Yetiskin aims to present an aesthetic entry point to the contemporary world and its modes of representation. One key reference point across the works resides in physics and the tension between waves and particles. One could also ask in the context of the works whether this tension is nowadays, or in the context of technical media, to be described as one of waves and discrete symbols (the Turing age)? The energetic waves and their rhythms are tightly interlinked with the discrete principles of computation. Or in media historical terms; the wave is build up of many layers, from the handwritten continuity of text, to physics experiments and models such as Helmholtz’s in the 19th century; to the principles of analog computation; the curves of mathematics and waves of sine and cosine, etc. : the ubiquity of the wave is actually part of a media archaeology of various stages, itself a wave, a recurrence.
One could even use this quote by Helmholtz as one sort of a motto for this exhibition, demonstrating a link to the psychophysical and rational aesthetics that stems as part of the 19th century already:
“Aesthetics seeks the essence of the artistically beautiful in its unconscious rationality. I have… sought to reveal the hidden law that determines the mellifluousness of harmonic tonal connections. Actually, this is something that happens unconsciously as far as the overtones are concerned, which are indeed perceived by the nerves but do not usually come forth into the domain of conscious ideation; nevertheless, their pleasantness or unpleasantness is felt without the listener knowing where the grounds for such feelings lie.” (Helmholtz, Über die physiologischen Ursachen der musikalischen Harmonie, lecture from 1857, published in Vorträge und Reden in 1896 90).
Of course it has to be noted that in the case of the Waves-exhibition, often this “unconscious rationality” is algorithmic or in reference to the world of modern (quantum) physics.
In a sense, one can approach the pieces of the exhibition as implicitly illuminating the various stages where waves appear and disappear in history. Some of the work is more tightly “media archaeological” such as Erdal Inci’s reanimation of the loop – GIF animations filmed in the real world, both representing a link to pre-cinematic short loop entertainment such as mutoscope reels and the digital short format as well. Many of the work, such as Korhan Erel’s “Findings”, investigates another media historical theme, i.e. the graphical print form of sound waves; intermedia on the level of spectral signatures of frequency/time. In general, the several pieces work nicely together.
Besides the exhibition, the Waves-programme includes talks that range from physics to philosophy.
The clip here is in Finnish but worthwhile a look. It features the scratch-it poetry table designed by the artist group IC-98 for the Frankfurt book fair. Muistikirjoituksia – Recollected Writings is a site-specific installation where Finnish contemporary poetry can be unfolded in ways that hark back to earlier days. In the short clip, one of the members of IC-98 Patrik Söderlund tells how this is a way to approach digital literature – or perhaps we should call this installation more accurately post-digital in the way Florian Cramer defines the term referring to uses where it dismisses “the idea of digital processing as the sole universal all-purpose form of information processing. Muistikirjoituksia frames materiality and pre-modern site-specific forms of engaging with literature in the public. Söderlund challenges us to think of new literature not only in the short time span of new digital technologies but asks to consider literature in a thousand year horizon.
More on IC-98-group here.
(I am personally excited to see Patrik Söderlund’s name pop up as he was the designer of the cover of my first book, Koneoppi. He also designed the covers of the Eetos-publication series we started in 2004.)
Technological change comes with the parallel pace of commentators identifying the change and with enthusiastic attempts to name the new.
Big data is perhaps the most recent of the revolutionary turns that wants to invent the conditions of its own newness, including writing its own short histories. However, most of modernity can be seen in terms of control and management (of things turned data, a theme that some media scholars such as Bernhard Siegert identify already in the 15th century emergence of double-entry bookkeeping).
Such a media history of management comes out well in such by now “old” classics as James Beniger’s The Control Revolution.
The book, from mid 1980s, also includes a useful list of the enthusiasm for the changes in rhetorics of social and technological change after WWII. The old new and continuous discursive revolutions of social change, technology, information and data merge into an annual cycle of invention of a new turn and concept of change:
Fill in the various revolutions post-1984.
The “Post-NSA”-world implies the question of the Pre-NSA; Post-Snowden Leaks imply also the Pre-Snowden-Era: investigations into the longer histories and panics about the interception capacities of COMINT-specialists extend further back in time. A sort of a media archaeology of SIGINT: the necessity to see the long term build-up of such organisations, logistics, infrastructures and political conditions where a massive level technological snooping is able to take place (after all, it did not emerge over night but is an aftereffect of World War II in many ways).
Kittler’s No Such Agency-piece is one key writing alongside a lot of texts on signal intelligence. I am currently continuing my own short blog post about Teufelsberg and the ECHELON-network into a longer academic essay, and as part of that, referring to the debate some 15 years ago after some ECHELON-network revelations. Here, a quote, even if only in German but it’s the Pynchonian version of 20th century: the paranoid-technological century (where paranoia becomes more than a state of the psyche; it becomes infrastructurally embedded).
Der Spiegel wrote on 21st of May, 1999 (as a reaction to STOA Interception Capabilities 2000-report): “Eine Vorstellung wie aus der Phantasie eines Paranoikers: Ob wir über Handy oder Festnetz telefonieren, E-Mail schreiben, Dateien übers Internet verschicken – kein Wort sei sicher vor dem Zugriff internationaler Geheimdienste, die systematisch und in großem Maßstab nahezu alle Wege, auch den zivilen elektronischen Datenverkehr, belauschen und für ihre Zwecke auswerten.”
The news about the (re)discovered Andy Warhol-images, excavated by digital forensics means, has been making rounds in news and social media. In short, a team of experts – including Cory Arcangel – discovered Warhol’s Amiga-paintings from 1985 floppy discs. As described in the news story: ”
“Warhol’s Amiga experiments were the products of a commission by Commodore International to demonstrate the graphic arts capabilities of the Amiga 1000 personal computer. Created by Warhol on prototype Amiga hardware in his unmistakable visual style, the recovered images reveal an early exploration of the visual potential of software imaging tools, and show new ways in which the preeminent American artist of the 20th century was years ahead of his time.” The images are related to the famous Debbie Harry-image Warhol painted on Amiga.
The case is an interesting variation on themes of media art history as well as digital forensics. As Julian Oliver coined it in a tweet:
The media archaeological enters with a realisation of the importance of such methods for the cultural heritage of born-digital content, but there’s more. The non-narrative focus of such methodologies is a different way of accessing what could be thought of as media archaeology of software culture and graphics. The technological tools carry an epistemological, even ontological weight: we see things differently; we are able to access a world previously unseen, also in historical contexts.
But there is a pull towards traditional historical discourses. The project demonstrates a technical understanding of cultural heritage and contemporary software culture but rhetorically frames it as just another part of the art historical/archaeological mythology of rediscovering long lost masterpieces of a Genius. This side still needs some updating so that the technical episteme of the excavation, detailed here [PDF] can become fully realised. Techniques of reverse engineering as well as insights into image formats as ways to understand the technical image need to be matched up with discourse that is able to demonstrate something more than traditional art history by new means. It needs to be able to show what is already at stake in these methods: a historical mapping of the anonymous forces of history, to use words from S. Giedion.
Scholars such as Matt Kirschenbaum have already demonstrated the significant stakes of digital forensics as part of a radical mindset to historical scholarship, heritage and media theory and we need to be able to build on such work that is theoretically rich.