In September 2004 I was a guest-blogger for the French online magazine fluctuat.net. I wrote a series of short posts about what could be called «the precursors of the Web»… or «the Web minus the technology».
Here is an augmented and updated version in English that will be published in the magazine for art and new media aminima N°20. Some of my pieces are described as well, in relation to these precursors.
«The Young Lady-(drawling discreetly) … 0, yes … I was … at the … cha … pel …
The Young Gentleman- (inaudibly) … I … (again inaudibly) … I …
The Young Lady-(softly) … 0 … but you’re … ve … ry … wick … ed.»
Stephen Hero, James Joyce
James Joyce (1882-1941) is a child of the second period of globalization, the one of the industrial revolution – the first one corresponds to the discovery of America, and the third one is the one we are living in.
The text by Joyce where he introduces his concept of epiphanies, written between 1904 and 1907, is visionary; as a modernist, he anticipates on the «transfiguration of the commonplace», and on the unavoidable dissolution of modernity. I believe Joyce had the intuition of what could be called globalization of the signifier. It’s quite an enigmatic expression… In fact, if you look at the epiphanies by Joyce quoted above and a page of results in Google, you will realize they have something in common: the three dots « … », which separates snippets of sentences that appear in the summarized search results.
The very first net.art piece I did, in 2001, Epiphanies, is a Google Hack inspired by Joyce’s epiphanies. My epiphany generator randomly collects pieces of sentences on the Internet, related to the input of the user, and reconstitutes the skeleton of a new text.
Prints of some Epiphanies (here in french), exhibited at Galerie Sollertis, Toulouse, January 2006.
At the beginning of the industrial revolution and the end of the age of Enlightenment, Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), English philosopher and founder of Utilitarianism, conceived the Panopticon, a carceral project that allows one individual to watch over all the prisoners so that they cannot know when they are being watched. This system has often been compared to the Web.
The panoptical dimension of the Internet, i.e. the generalized surveillance and control of our least moves and desires, is extending with the development of the blogosphere and the pervasiveness of new technologies.
Google’s takeover on Blogger in 2003 unveiled the hold-up of a gold mine, constituted by the implicit exploitation rights of the intimate speech of millions of internauts: the aim here is to access our intimate thoughts, the raw material for trend analysis, to extract statistical information about our intimacy and our desires and to try to scientifically predict the behaviour of users, what they are going to think in any given circumstance (not as individuals but as a statistical set), in order to optimize the adwords/adsense machinery, on which Google IPO is based.
In exchange for the narrowing of our intimacy, the promise of an immediate satisfaction of our needs makes this trend apparentely irrepressible. There are some attempts to respond to this transformation of the universe of discourse into a Pentagon-like project, such as the T.I..A «Total Information Awareness», but they are not necessarily where we expect them…
Edgar Allan Poe
An implicit response to the utilitarianist philosophy of Jeremy Bentham, the short story by Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), «The purloined letter», sets on stage the failure of totalizing knowledge in the resolution of a police enigma. An important letter has been stolen by a Minister. The police know that he hides the letter in his house and they are in charge of getting it back. The articulation of the story is as follows:
– The police think that the Minister will hide the letter so that the best scientific police will have the least chance to find it.
– The Minister guesses that the police will think this way and just leaves the letter slightly made-up and torn on his table. Indeed, the police search the whole house, inch by inch, but can’t find it.
– The detective Dupin understands that the minister has guessed what the police think and finds the letter as soon as he enters the house.
The succession of «hacks» that the short story presents, anticipates by some 150 years the first performances of the age of the globalization of the signifier: The panoptical dimension of search engines echoes the blindness of police mining in worldwide artistic performances like my Google Adwords Happening or Etoy/Etoy(s). The latter is not only a pun about the purloined “s” letter, it’s about the equivoque as a weapon of mass destruction.
In 1887, Stéphane Mallarmé (1842–1898), who translated many of the works of Edgar Allan Poe, published a poem called «Crisis in Verse», where he compares the use of language to the exchange of used coins of money, passed on from hand to hand in silence. This amazing intuition opposes a prosaic use of language to what he redefines as poetry, evoking «la disparition élocutoire du poête»: the vanishing of the poet behind the words, in the act of speech…
I believe his intuition anticipates what happens today with the use and sale of language in the global never-ending hypertext linking process, as shown in my piece the Google Adwords Happening where I introduce the paradox of semantic capitalism that is at the core of Google business. As in Mallarmé, the Adwords Happening tells us about the vanishing of the poet… behind the market of words.
Related to this is the question of the hapax. A hapax is a word that appears once and only once in literature, and is therefore disconnected from the network of significations. The most famous is the hapax «ptyx» by Mallarmé in «Sonnet allégorique de lui-même»:
Sur les crédences, au salon vide : nul ptyx,
Aboli bibelot d’inanité sonore,
(Car le Maître est allé puiser des pleurs au Styx
Avec ce seul objet dont le Néant s’honore.)
The status of the hapax (within the context of the Web, cf my piece Hapax) deals with the question of the absolute separation from the symbolic field, which is an extreme position that negates the concept of network itself and therefore is one of the only places we can lean on to articulate the concept of network from outside the discourse of Science and Capitalism where the idea of irreducible loss, of irreducible separation, is unadmissible. Other extreme positions are the idea of pop or the absolute merchandise (Jean Baudrillard, De la marchandise absolue, in Artstudio, N°8, Printemps 1988, «Spécial Andy Warhol»).
«Dip the apple in the brew / Let the sleeping death seep through»
I go on with Alan Turing (1912-1954). First, there is confusion in the digital world about 0 and 1. On one hand, you have the well-known bits introduced by Claude Shannon that serve as units for storing information. But before information is stored in the form of an array of zeros and ones, there is an act : what makes the machine jump from one state to another. The Turing Machine puts on stage this act in a minimalist implementation, sort of conceptual theater of thought.,.
Just read the famous article by Alan Turing «Computing Machinery and Intelligence» where he describes what will be called the Turing Test, i.e. how a computer could play the imitation game, pretend to be a woman and cheat on the observer. You will find out that the obsessions of the founder of computer science were linked to many other binaries: true-false, man-woman, fort-da… Also remember the way Alan Turing killed himself after being condemned to chemical castration because of his homosexuality: fascinated by the movie by Disney «Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs», he poisoned half of an apple and took one random bite (some say that this is the origin of the Apple logo).
The reason why Turing is inserted in my series about the precursors of the Web is not only linked to the fact that he is one of the founding fathers of computer science. In fact the Turing Test is very close in its structure of the «prisoner’s dilemma» studied by Jacques Lacan in 1945 (Lacan, J. : « Le temps logique et l’assertion de certitude anticipée », Ecrits, Paris, Ed du Seuil, 1966) : «Five discs are shown to three prisoners. Two are black and three white. One fixes one of these discs between the shoulders of each prisoner, without their being able to know the color of their own disc. Each prisoner can see the disc of the other two, but not his own. There is no possible communication between them. The head warden proposes to release the prisoner who will logically establish the color of his own disc.»
Furthermore, the article by Lacan anticipates on its very own commentary about the short story by Poe, in which he identifies the logical recursive structure of the resolution of the dilemma. I don’t find it useless to read all this again, while the act of speech seems to have become powerless at the age of globalization. As I said before, the question of performativity pops up again today with new stakes and a new dilemma: how to get out of the Global Village, turned into a panoptical prison made out of discourse?
Georges Perec & Marcel Bénabou
«On ne commande au langage qu’en lui obéissant»
«You can only command language by obeying it». This is how begins the PALF project proposed by Georges Perec (1936-1982) and Marcel Bénabou (1939- ) in 1964 to enter the OuLiPo, Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, founded in 1960 by Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais.
The idea is that you consider a text and you replace each word with its definition (in some dictionary for instance). Then you reiterate the process and you observe the evolution of the text. Then you take an other text, as different as possible from the first one, and you do the same. After a series of iterations, both have to converge towards a single huge intermediate text. This produces very beautiful and funny texts (in French).
As far as I know, it is one of the first literary production which is in such a close relation with graph theory (Raymond Queneau, Stefan Themerson and others should be quoted here as well), and hence with the mathematical structure of networks.
My piece Dreamlogs is a generalization of the PALF project using the Internet and search engines instead of a dictionnary. Dreamlogs is a thought association engine, an attempt to grasp the topological structure of the Global Text that the Web is.
The New-York Times has recently reported an experiment by Stanley Milgram (1933-1984) : students walk along crowded metro wagons, asking passengers to give up their seats. By Stanley Milgram, you may also know the famous experiments in social psychology: the «Submission to authority», or the «Small world» which is a root concept of the Web 2.0.
The «Submission to authority» shows «an experimenter who persuades the participant to give what the participant believes are painful electric shocks to another participant, who is actually an actor. Many participants continued to give shocks despite pleas for mercy from the actor».
This experiment had partly inspired my WiFi-SM project: a Wi-Fi patch that would display electric shocks to the wearer, when specific key words (like war, death, torture…) appear in news portals or RSS news feeds, so that anybody could share other people’s pain, giving its ultimate meaning to the idea of social network.
The WiFi-SM installation at Galerie Sollertis, Toulouse, January 2006.
Jeremy Bentham, had conceived a whipping machine… but without any irony:
«Of all these different modes of punishment, whipping is the most frequently in use; but in whipping not even the qualities of the instrument are ascertained by written law: while the quantity of force to be employed in its application is altogether intrusted to the caprice of the executioner. He may make the punishment as trifling or as severe as he pleases. He may derive from this power a source of revenue, so that the offender will be punished, not in proportion to his offence, but to his poverty. If he has been unfortunate, and not able to secure his plunder, or honest, and has voluntarily given it up, and thus has nothing left to make a sop for Cerberus, he suffers the rigour—perhaps more than the rigour—of the law. Good fortune and perseverance, in dishonesty, would have enabled him to buy indulgence.
The following contrivance would, in a measure, obviate this inconvenience:—A machine might be made, which should put in motion certain elastic rods of cane or whalebone, the number and size of which might be determined by the law: the body of the delinquent might be subjected to the strokes of these rods, and the force and rapidity with which they should be applied, might be prescribed by the Judge: thus everything which is arbitrary might be removed. A public officer, of more responsible character than the common executioner, might preside over the infliction of the punishment; and when there were many delinquents to be punished, his time might be saved, and the terror of the scene heightened, without increasing the actual suffering, by increasing the number of the machines, and subjecting all the offenders to punishment at the same time .»
The rationale of punishment, Jeremy Bentham
In «The Age of Access», Jeremy Rifkin describes the transition towards a network capitalism in which value is no longer generated by the production of manufactured objects but by concepts. As I evoke in my piece the Google Adwords Happening, this transition is accompanied by a commodification of what we consider as most intimate and most shared at the same time: language.
One of the current problems of capitalism is the control and the optimization of this new market : thus, Taylorism, from Frederick Taylor (1856-1915), the author of «The Principles of Scientific Management», is continued through a Taylorisation of discourse, the mechanisms of which are beginning to appear in broad daylight:
1) First, spectacular media like television indicate a main direction allowing to roughly orient the global stream of thoughts of spectator-consumers. But, as Patrick Le Lay, CEO of the French private channel TF1, confesses in a statement which caused some scandal in France in July 2004:
«There are many ways of talking about television. But in a business context, let’s be realistic: basically, TF1’s job is to help Coca-cola, for example, to sell its product (…). However, for an advertisement to be perceived, it is necessary that the brain of the spectator should be available. The role of our programs is to make it available: i.e. to entertain it, to relax it in order to prepare it between two messages. What we sell to Coca-cola is some time of available human brain (…).
Nothing is more difficult than obtaining this availability. There lies the permanent change. It is necessary to seek at all times the programs that will fit, to follow the latest fashions, to surf on the trends of the moment, in a context where information accelerates, multiplies and gets more pervasive».
We perceive here the stakes for the spectacle providers, who are confronted to the limits of reality-TV and audience rating, and dream of scientific tools of trend analysis.
2) Hence the second point : they need a tool of further control that would measure the deviation from to the main direction and anticipate the continuous bifurcations in an more and more liquid and unstable informational media. It is in this recursive mechanism – similar to the enslavement mechanisms of cybernetics – that the panoptical dimension of the Web 2.0 comes. Thus, Google, which was spawned by the libertarian concepts of the beginnings of the Internet, but has eventually started semantic capitalism, is no spectacle provider: it is rather a structure of vampirisation, which, as I already said, draws its raw material from the speech of internauts, whose most intimate desires he then sells to big media and spectacle providers.
Picture of my performance «Some time of available human brain…» with Jérôme Piques, the first Human Browser, at the Nuit Blanche de Paris 2004.
The Great Chain of Being
According to the concept of the Great Chain of Being, that lasted from Classical Antiquity to the end of the Medieval period, everything in the universe – inanimate objects, vegetals, animals, humans, angels and God – has its place in a divinely planned generalized social network. Each node is a microcosm (literally, a «small world») that reflects the structure of the world as a whole, the macrocosm.
If you think of this conception, you will find that it echoes the main characteristics of the new mathematical theory of networks, like the «small world» and the «scale-free» properties, as described in the book by Albert-Laszlo Barabasi (Barabási, Albert-László Linked: How Everything is Connected to Everything Else, 2004) and in the models of the Web 2.0 («tipping points», «long tails» etc..). Just replace the well-defined places of the Great Chain with the concept of hub and picture the circulation of «Spirit» through the «long tail» of beings within the «aristocratic network».
Science is now playing with the alchemist dream by extracting gold all along the Postmodern Great Chain of Being, tracking the circulation of the surplus-valued «Spirit»: as described before, this is precisely the economical dynamics of Google and of the Web 2.0.
1579 drawing of the great chain of being from Didacus Valades, Rhetorica Christiana
The Web after the Web
I could go on with many other evocations… but I’m going to stop here.
Echoing the Turing Test, the quotation by Andy Warhol «I want to be a machine» may be seen as the ironic answer of Pop Art to the Prisonners’ dilemma: «Am I human?». The absolute merchandise underlines the existence of an irreducible singularity in the map of ourselves («map of the Empire that has the size of the Empire» as in Jorge Luis Borges short story), a singularity which precedes the renaissance of the object from the scale-free market of language (cf also http://cosmolalia.com/readme100).
As an example among a few others, take my piece Human Browser: this perpetual dandy (a contradiction in terms) embodies the Global Text, which is exploded and recondensates as the speech of an hypothetical subject, epiphanizing Google’s absolute knowledge (See also Webpaintings, Valéry Grancher, http://www.nomemory.org/webpaint/data/text.htm; he as well as other early net artists have anticipated explicitely this ironical return to the object since 1997. Blank & Jeron, Miltos Manetas should be quoted here as well. The low-tech aspect of net.art, promoted by Vuk Cosic, Alexei Shulgin & al. is of course fundamental here and pushed to its extreme, “beyond irony”, as Alexei Shulgin pointed out after a talk I gave at ReadMe 100).
Manon Kahle, the first female browser, at Transmediale, February 2006, Berlin.
If we look at the whole process:
1) Human beings speak
2) Google hacks the sum of all the speeches of mankind
3) I hack Google in return
4) From this double hack, a human being speaks (the Human Browser) and we are back to 1)
This double hack shows a return towards the most primitive interface, the most primitive object: the human voice. Thus the ultimate interface here is also the most primitive one, the most low-tech. But in the meantime a huge loop has been made across dematerialization, deterritorialization and other so-called postmodern concepts. Unveiling the new alliance between Science and Capitalism in the Age of Access, the irony here is redoubled; the death of net.art had anticipated the post-network return to the object, from then on turned into a denegation of any differential network, an absolute fetish.
I think it’s interesting to compare this doubly ironical loop with another one:
a) The modernist pre-concept of the Web as a panoptical social network was born with Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism.
b) Totalitarian ideologies of the XXth century are a first attempt to implement Bentham’s panopticon over a part of mankind. In the mean time, just after WW2, Turing sets the basics of computing machinery. And finally, in 1989, the end of these attempts marks the end of Modernity.
c) The Web can also be considered as a characteristic implementation of Postmodernity.
d) On the grounds of the libertarian aspect of the Web supported by Google and of global terrorism, the Web is ironically turning back into its anticipated modernist preconcept: a Benthamian panoptic structure of colonization of intimacy and semantic capitalism.
NB: the last part of this very last paragraph was actually written for the discussion on Empyre, March 2006, Is Modernity our Antiquity?
Christophe Bruno, 2004-2006