We are the droids we’re looking for: the New Aesthetic and its friendly critics

Bruce Sterling’s recent essay on the New Aesthetic has pushed into motion a public discussion about what was, up until now, only a cluster of loose propositions and speculations by an energetic group of enthusiasts. For those not in the loop, the New Aesthetic is a term coined by digital artist James Bridle, to throw a line around a set of phenomena Bridle has noticed emerging from the proliferation and domestication of digital media and networked information systems, in which the presence of digital processes erupts into our physical world. They are, as Sterling summarizes, things like:

‘…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.’

And there are plenty more, as Bridle’s original tumblr demonstrated, until he suspended it early this May. On the surface, the New Aesthetic is all the stuff that starts to fall out into everyday life once the deployment of digital production and information systems become extensively dispersed and integrated into everyday life – into cultural forms and habits, and the way we access information about the world. They’re the products of a rapidly developing feedback loop between the new digital technologies and their users, in ways that increasingly interfere with the physical world. So if, once upon a time, the ‘digital’ was the stuff which appeared inside that clunky but discrete physical box called a computer, digital and network processes are now increasingly ubiquitous and tangibly implicated in organizing our perception and interaction with the physical, informational and social world, as the hardware interfaces and network platforms have become increasingly distributed and domesticated.

To summarise, Bridle’s New Aesthetic be split into two areas of interest: the first groups those phenomena in which humans are acknowledging and responding to the presence of digital processes in the physical world, in less or more ‘cultural’ forms – us watching the machines; the second examines those forms in which machines observe and visualize the physical and human world – the machines, in some sense, ‘watching us’.

Linking these together is a fascination with the increasingly promiscuous interaction between the two situations, between the virtual and the physical, the digital and the real. And deeper down, Bridle’s point-and-describe activity is an excited speculation about the consequences of the development of ‘machine vision’, and the consequences of the integration of the digital into the social, for that well-worn philosophical debate, ‘what it means to be human’.

If Sterling’s essay has kick-started a debate, a number of criticisms have emerged from the initial heat, although most responses have been broadly positive. So at this point it seems like a good idea to examine where the critical discussion is settling, and to offer some further criticisms of these.

The pertinence of the New Aesthetic is real enough to provoke various critics to bring their own theoretical perspectives to their criticism. So for example, some critics attacks the New Aesthetic for not being political, or political in a negative way, because of its seeming indifference to the authoritarian dangers of machines that survey, monitor and target. The same angle has been given a feminist slant by others, because the peculiar emphasis of the New Aesthetic on ‘machine vision’ throws traditionally feminist critiques of ‘the gaze’ outside the conventional discussion of gender difference and patriarchy, or potentially refigures it in unexpected ways.

But most critical responses to the New Aesthetic have been ‘friendly criticism’, and have tended to issue from those interested in how developments in technology presage supposedly fundamental transformations in human subjectivity. Those sympathetic responses have come from where you might expect them – from the extended community of techno-utopian cyber-theorists, who see in the New Aesthetic a renewed confirmation of a dreamt-of transformation of human identity through its merger with a technology of network consciousness.

In fact, few have agreed or sided with Sterling’s central criticism of the New Aesthetic, though you’d easily miss this for all the fawning and grovelling directed towards the grand old seer. So it’s perhaps worth reminding oneself of Sterling’s comments. For in all 5,000 words of sardonic reflection, avuncular chiding, Brit-teasing and other rhetorical fireworks of which Sterling is a pro, his criticisms do come down to one substantial challenge, directed at the New Aesthetic’s romantic fascination with machine vision as something which might pose as a meaningful ‘other’ to our humanness. Sterling’s attack on the New Aesthetic focuses on what he sees as its naïve taste for the machine and for the wished-for goal of ‘artificial intelligence’, at the expense of the human beings who, in reality, are what give all this technology meaning. It’s worth quoting a number of passages:

‘Our human, aesthetic reaction to the imagery generated by our machines is our own human problem. We are the responsible parties there. We can program robots and digital devices to generate images and spew images at our eyeballs. We can’t legitimately ask them to tell us how to react to that.

‘…I will hammer that iron nail a bit more, in case you aren’t getting it yet. Because this is the older generation’s crippling hangup with their alleged “thinking machines.” When computers first shoved their way into analog reality, they came surrounded by a host of poetic metaphors. Cybernetic devices were clearly much more than mere motors and engines, so they were anthropomorphized and described as having “thought,” “memory,” and nowadays “sight” and “hearing.” Those metaphors are deceptive. These are the mental chains of the old aesthetic, these are the iron bars of oppression we cannot see.’

‘…Computers don’t and can’t make sound aesthetic judgements. Robots lack cognition. They lack perception. They lack intelligence. They lack taste. They lack ethics. They just don’t have any. Tossing in more software and interactivity, so that they’re even jumpier and more apparently lively, that doesn’t help.

‘It’s not their fault. They are not moral actors and they are incapable of faults. It’s our fault for pretending otherwise, for fooling ourselves, for projecting our own qualities onto phenomena that we built, that are very interesting to us, but not at all like us. We can’t give them those qualities of ours, no matter how hard we try.’

Sterling’s criticisms home in on the fantasy of artificial intelligence that lies behind the New Aesthetic’s fascination with machine vision, and in particular, what seems to be its misguided attempt to anthropomorphise systems and effects which are no more that highly responsive and flexible combinations of social software and proliferating hardware.

But Sterling’s criticisms are, I think, missing the point. The New Aesthetic is not particularly interested in the quest for artificial intelligence (although it is very interested in the development of a machine ‘sensorium’). Or rather, it is interested in AI, but in a new way – one in which the status of human subjectivity is radically displaced or downgraded. Sterling’s reassertion of the agency and specificity of the qualities of human being – of perception, cognition, intelligence, ethics, moral responsibility etc. – is itself interesting, but what he doesn’t notice in his assertion of human particularity is the fact that the New Aesthetic is not much interested in this version of what it means to be human. His criticisms attack a symptom, without pausing to reflect on its cause.

What really fascinates the New Aesthetics is the growing call-and-response interaction between humans and digital systems where digital systems act in ways that allow us to perceive human qualities of interaction onto them. But this isn’t, in fact, a ‘fantasy’ of anthropomorphic projection – of the desire for machines to become ever more human. It is instead an acknowledgement that humans are becoming more machine-like, or rather, can be interpreted as being no different to machines themselves.  This isn’t an old-fashioned preoccupation about producing ‘true’ (ie authentically human) AI, but a more subtle and novel concern; the New Aesthetic isn’t interested in the fantasy of an unrealisable AI, but in the already-real presence of systems that draw humans into supposedly ever-more complex forms of machine-human interaction. It’s not AI, an analogue of being human, which is being looked for, but it is form of agency that the machines are being assigned – the agency of modifying human subjectivity by their mutual interaction.

But Sterling’s defence of human particularism (philosophically, that’s what it is) leads him to a conservative rejection of the possibility of AI (‘It’s as impossible as Artificial Intelligence, which is a failed twentieth-century research campaign, reduced to a sci-fi conceit’). This is a pity, because by dramatizing a face-off between being human and being AI, Sterling doesn’t notice the more fundamental and novel problem; the reason the New Aesthetic appears so fascinated with assigning the apparently implausible possibility of agency to machines is because it is indifferent to the concept of agency as a uniquely human trait.

In an interesting response, Matthew Battles focuses on this fantasy of machine agency that seems to lurk in the New Aesthetic’s enthusiasm. Reporting a conversation with a friend, Battles mentions that ‘the New Aesthetic is practicing something like the pathetic fallacy—that time-honored conceit of poets that attributes feeling to inanimate objects’. Yet Battles concedes ‘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.’

Battles’s conclusion is a succinct characterisation of the New Aesthetic’s fascination, which nevertheless ends up being seduced by it, inverting (perhaps inadvertently) Sterling’s criticisms into praise:

‘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.’

But do they? Well, yes they do, but only because humans have deployed them to do so. They may ‘seem’ to have experience, but they really don’t. Yet the ‘pathetic fallacy’ at the heart of the New Aesthetic is powerful and insistent. Bridle’s desire to see machine processes as entities independent of humans courses through his language. Closing his address at last October’s Web Directions South, in Sydney, Bridle declared:

“Technology wants to be like us, and we kind of want to be more like it. We now live in a world that we share with the technology, that to some extent we’re building, but to a huge extent is also shaping the way we behave. And the thing to bear in mind is that we want this; we want to live together with these new beings, this new form, this new culture… These things are radically transformative, we are creating a new nature in the world.”

So, it’s not that the machine processes highlighted by the New Aesthetic need to be or become AI according to any human criteria. Indeed, holding the machine processes to a human standard of intelligence would be seen as outrageously, anachronistically anthropocentric in this context. Bridle’s message is anti-anthropocentric – these are things with their own autonomy, he proposes, and perhaps we interact with them as ethical and ontological equals, or at the very least, they are developing outside any general human control, and we are as much their subject as they are ours. Let’s stop thinking of ourselves as superior to the machine, expecting it to replicate our standard of consciousness, and let’s instead start interacting with it as something with its own nature, its own autonomy, on a level footing. For evangelists such as Bridle, the human is not so special, nor so permanent, that it might not be transformed by its interaction with this ‘new nature’.

This may seem like an extreme conclusion to draw, until you notice that the people who have started to stick up for the New Aesthetics are, in their theoretical leanings, the ones who have already come to the conclusion that being human is not so special, immutable or exceptional. I’m talking here about the odd strand of contemporary philosophy know as Object Oriented Ontology. Here’s Greg Borenstein’s response to Sterling’s criticism:

‘I believe that the New Aesthetic is actually striving towards a fundamentally new way of imagining the relations between things in the world. To convince you of this, I’ll make a case that the New Aesthetic strongly resonates with a recent movement in philosophy called Object-Oriented Ontology and that establishing a closer alliance with OOO might be a way to increase the precision of the New Aesthetic vocabulary and enrich its process by pointing towards new modes of imagining its objects of fascination.’

Borenstein is one of a number of writers and practitioners involved in Object Oriented Ontology. Ian Bogost is another. In his response to the New Aesthetic he defines OOO like this:

‘If ontology is the philosophical study of existence, then object-oriented ontology puts things at the center of being. We humans are elements, but not the sole elements of philosophical interest. OOO contends that nothing has special status, but that everything exists equally – plumbers, cotton, bonobos, DVD players, and sandstone, for example. OOO steers a path between scientific naturalism and social relativism, drawing attention to things at all scales and pondering their nature and relations with one another as much as ourselves.’

So, we humans are elements, but not the sole elements of philosophical interest. In this regard, Object Oriented Ontology is part of a long tradition of post-humanist philosophy that seeks to displace the human from its elevated status among all other things in the universe. Humanity is just a thing, among others.

This may seem like a specialist philosophical issue, but post-humanism is now an established and active culture in the humanities, the confident offspring of Deleuze, Foulcault and De Landa, alongside some more bizarre and esoteric strands. (For a good concentrated example of its spectrum, see the blurb for the recent  The Nonhuman Turn  conference at the University of Wisconsin.) But in fact such thinking has for a long time gone mainstream – it’s so common in contemporary thinking about the relationship of human beings to the world that it requires an effort to notice how prevalent this shift in perspective has become. Today, we’re more used to cultural narratives and metaphors that see human being as components within larger, non-human systems: the most common among these is now environmentalism, but in many areas of contemporary thinking there’s a tendency to see human beings as mere subroutines of some larger agency – at the macro level it could be the economy (governed by computers, of course, or by the new ‘behavioural economics’); or, at the micro level, consciousness itself is seen by modern neuroscience and behavioural genetics to be merely an ‘effect’ of neurological processes or genetic code.

These are aspects of the contemporary vernacular of post-humanism, a cultural discourse in which we observe human existence as if it were external to us, as if it were something we were observing from outside. Humans are not, in this model, reflective, active, choice-making or autonomous, but are simply nodes within larger networks which they are unable to perceive or influence. And it’s this view that – perhaps paradoxically – strongly influences the supposedly human-centred phenomenon of digital, networked social technologies and media.

The fascination with ‘machine vision’ in the New Aesthetic is a product of this shift away from thinking from an anthropocentric perspective. It is not, as Sterling or Battles would have it, an anthropomorphic projection or a ‘pathetic fallacy’ – it is not, in other words, a delusion. It is a perspective that sees machine processes and human consciousness interacting in a fluid way, but one in which where the purposeful, directive, and superior agency of the human aspect is radically in doubt: as the cultural meme always loves to tell us at this point, we are being ‘fundamentally transformed’ by our interaction with technology. (The fact that we’ve been in the state of being ‘fundamentally transformed’ by our interaction with technology since Wiener and McCluhan doesn’t stop the enthusiasts.) And because the New Aesthetic pays attention to what are dynamically interactive software formations which are extremely fluid in their adaptation to human response, it can make the half-plausible observation that there is an ‘emergent’ aspect to these formations that might analogise a form of intelligence.

This is a key issue, because it reverses the classical (and effectively humanist) model of the AI project. We are no longer seeking to replicate or synthesise an authentic human consciousness in machines because there is no longer anything authentically human about consciousness; we are instead convinced that human consciousness is increasingly reducible to ‘computational’ forms. Through ubiquitous interaction, the patterns of response which signify the human are being absorbed into the digital. This is why the old legacy of behaviourist psychology is so attractive to this discussion, and why the figure of Alan Turing hovers in the background as a sort of patron saint of the New Aesthetic. Turing’s famous test, remember, was not about whether one can test for artificial intelligence, but about whether one can test for what appears to be intelligence.

If we were in any doubt about this downgrading of the Human, we should cast back to Sterling’s earlier definition of what cannot be replicated by the Robot:

Computers don’t and can’t make sound aesthetic judgements. Robots lack cognition. They lack perception. They lack intelligence. They lack taste. They lack ethics. They just don’t have any.

But each of these classically humanist areas – ratiocination, aesthetics, ethics – have for some time been under assault from various strands of post-humanist theory and science: cognition and perception has been reduced to mechanistic programme of neurobiological science; aesthetics is similarly being challenged by neuroaesthetics, which contends that aesthetic pleasure is no more than an effect of the brain’s structures; and ethics is being displaced by a the managerial politics of behaviour modification – people are no longer deemed capable of moral autonomy, but are instead need to be manipulated, or ‘nudged’, to make correct lifestyle choices and adopt appropriate attitudes. In other words, humans are increasingly being treated as if they were already machines.

Whether the New Aesthetic gets this or not, this is the philosophical and cultural terrain on which the enthusiasm that surrounds it is grounded. What machines do is increasingly interesting because what humans do is not. This attitude is clearly present in the New Aesthetic’s interest in forms of visual culture where the machine and its processes are becoming the self-conscious subject matter of human design creatives, in product design, pop culture fashion design or iterative architecture. Sterling would have it that this is a sort of faddish design pose:

‘So the New Aesthetic is really a design-fiction, it’s a postulated creative position. By metaphorically pretending that machines are our friends, we can see what they ‘see,’ and think what they ‘think’… We do get a payoff for that effort. We achieve creative results that we would not have gotten without that robot disguise.’

Actually, it’s worse that this. What ‘metaphorically pretending that machines are our friends’ really signifies is the exhaustion of an older culture of design and aesthetic thinking – it boils down to finding what machines can produce visually, and how their technologies of representation operate, more interesting than what humans can create. While it is framed in terms of aesthetic innovation, it really signals the shift away from a narrative of human-centred creative activity.

But this isn’t exactly a surprise, when one considers how little we value the idea of human aesthetic creativity; after all, originality is overrated, people do not create, they merely recycle and recombine all that has gone before, and the death of the author means semiosis is largely independent of human intentionality. Contemporary designers may deploy hi-tech CAD and rapid prototyping to produce ever more virtuoso forms, but this mentality is old hat – the New Aesthetic is at least honest enough to know when to hand over a worn-out ideology of aesthetic innovation to the random iterations of the algorithm and the glitch. In this new culture, what appears as authentic creative innovation isn’t some n-th degree repetition of the idea of human aesthetic originality. Instead, creativity lies in facilitating the unknown evolution of the machine process as primarily responsible for aesthetic generation. The New Aesthetics is a demand-side aesthetics. It doesn’t matter who transmits, only what is received. Say Sterling:

‘Valorizing machine-generated imagery is like valorizing the unconscious mind. Like Surrealist imagery, it is cool, weird, provocative, suggestive, otherworldly, but it is also impoverished.’

It may seem impoverished, but without a more robust concept of the creative, initiating human subject, it is also an accurate reflection of the current condition.

In these comments I’ve tried to outline not so much a critique of the New Aesthetic, as the territory on which a fuller critique should be fought out. Identifying the background intellectual tendencies to which the New Aesthetic is subject, and pointing to those theoretical agendas which see an ally, vindication or champion in the New Aesthetic goes some way to illuminating this territory. Underpinning these comments, however, is the argument that much contemporary western culture, theory and philosophy now harbours a sort of death-wish for the state of being human, or at least the kind of human which is the intellectual legacy of the enlightenment and the broader humanist project. Machines may indeed become more interesting than humans. Human consciousness may indeed be reducible to machine processes. Human society made indeed be ‘fundamentally transformed’ by our interaction with technology. But these assertions may also be nothing more than the cultural prejudices produced by the philosophical and political problems generated by the post-human vernacular. It would be worth figuring out which is the case.

9 thoughts on “We are the droids we’re looking for: the New Aesthetic and its friendly critics”

  1. To take it a step more recursive, I have a loosely-formed speculation that a lot of NA art / creative work (and decisions to post found images) are not taking “machine vision” as the subject matter, but rather our reaction to it – our emotional and cultural reactions to non-human agency, the Other viewer. This for me is why the certain tension between nostalgia and haunting in the NA – it’s an attempt to come to terms with our own displacement.

  2. Concerning the last paragraph: couldn’t it just be said that our consciousness is not what’s going to save our humanity? Maybe consciousness is in fact just a sort of dream narrative, a constant creative closing of gaps in perception to sustain a seamless sense of self. This way the battle is lost but not the war. Instead, maybe we should look for our humanity in our sense of inadequacy and dislocation: Technology transforms us. Ok but so what?! We will also feel dislocated from what ever bio-techno-hybrid we we will be in future because that sense of displacement from “bare life/technology” is basically what it means to be human.

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