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Chapt. 01: What is poetic about computation?

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Chapt. 01

What is poetic about computation?

Introduction

Greetings. Welcome to the first class of Poetics and Politics of Computation at the School for Poetic Computation(SFPC). I’d like to begin the class by asking “What is poetic computation?” First, there is the poetics of code, which refers to code as a form of poetry. There is something poetic about code itself, the way that syntax works, the way that repetitions work, and the way that instruction becomes execution through abstraction. There is also what I call the poetic effect of code, which is an aesthetic experience realized through code. In other words, when the mechanics of words are in the right place, the language transcends its constraints and rules, and in turn, creates this poetic effect whereby thought is transformed into experience.

Together, the poetics of code and the poetic effect of code form ‘poetic computation.’ The terms code and computation are often used interchangeably, but I should note that code is only one aspect of computation. Code is a series of instruction for computation that requires logical systems and hardware to make the instructions computable. In that sense, computation is a higher level concept than code. For our purposes, however, we can use poetics of code and poetics of computation interchangeably throughout these discussions.

To a non-coder, non-artist friend, or to those just beginning to learn to program, I often say code may look like poetry in an alien language. And to those more experienced with code, writing code sometimes feels like writing poetry because it doesn’t always ‘work.’ I mean two things by ‘work’: first, does it work as an art form? Is it good poetry? On the other hand, I mean ‘work’ in a more utilitarian sense. Does it have practical application?

Errantic Poetry, Taeyoon Choi, 2016

At SFPC, we like to think that poetic computation is when language meets mathematics, and logic meets electricity. Sometimes, poetic computation is literally writing poems with code. Some of our teachers and students write poetry with algorithms to explore what the language can do. When we started the school, a lot of people asked if the school is for generative poetry or electronic literature. We clarified that while we are definitely interested in the intersection of language and computation, we want to explore a broader definition of the ‘poetic.’ We want to investigate the art of computation as well as the expressive qualities of code, including its aesthetic, visual, aural and material aspects.

While this artistic potential lies at the core of the school’s excitement about code and computation, I’m interested in how this turn towards art may help us explore political possibilities. In this class, I consider computation to be a lens for examining reality and thinking about emergent issues in the world. In other words, computation can be a vehicle for imagining new ways of being in the world. Let’s first step back to look at material precedents of modern computation and computers.

Genealogy of computers

The first computers were human.1 Long before electronic computers were invented, ‘computing’ was a profession for people who calculated and managed data. The (human) computers worked with mathematicians to execute algorithms and theories. Mathematicians would ask the (human) computers to work on the numbers.2 Often times, there would be multiple (human) computers working on the same algorithms in order to detect and prevent mistakes. Considering the history, it’s curious that we’ve created such a dichotomy between computers and humans these days. In a sense we are all computers (people who compute). Computers need not always be metallic, electronic or very distinct from us. Computer scientists, among others, may be wary of my broad definition of computers, but I like to think computers are whenever a logical way of thinking is applied to a given problem.

We can trace the evolution of contemporary computers from operations research around World War II to management science in the second half of the 20th century. Operations research mainly focused on calculations for ballistic missiles and planning logistics for moving large numbers of troops at the same time, while management science, which grew out of operations research, included anything from accounting to quantitative research. Actually, much of the software we use today, such as Microsoft Excel and Word, Gmail and Facebook, share a distant lineage to both.

Operations research and management science are related because they both were influenced by the discipline of cybernetics, the theory of self-regulating systems comprised of feedback loops. When these self-regulating systems were accompanied by powerful computers, it made possible the centralization and decentralization of information and material goods on a vast scale. The tension between these two states marked temporary crises and resolutions in Capitalism, manifest as production and dispersion, times of abundance and scarcity, or even war and peace. In this way, war machines and international finance share the same ancestors. As we move on, it’s important to keep in mind that I’m presenting an incomplete genealogy of computers, and I encourage you to go back after the talk and explore the specifics.

Mechanical computer

In the early 19th century, Charles Babbage, an English mathematician and engineer, invented arguably the first mechanical computer. This tabulating machine, designed to calculate large sets of data, was built with the materials and technology available to Babbage at the time. It was an era of ships, railroads, and lots of mechanical inventions, so he constructed his computer as a system of moving gears. Very mechanical!

It’s interesting to think in general about how people’s ideas for inventions were constrained by the materials available to them. In fact, the history of computers is closely related to discovery of new materials. It is thus remarkable that Babbage managed to imbue his mechanical computer with the conceptual framework of the not-yet-possible computers. The Analytical Engine, one of the incomplete prototypes by Babbage, became a platform for Ada Lovelace, a mathematician, to collaborate and create algorithms. In this way, Lovelace came to be considered one of the first ‘computer programmers,’ a person who instructs machines in automated tasks.3

Analog Computer

The analog computer was a stepping stone to the digital computer because while it still had mechanical components, it also had analog components that used a continuous (electrical) signal.4 Vannevar Bush, a mathematician and electrical engineer, who we’ll discuss more next week, did critical work on the analog computer. Its components included disc and wheel mechanisms that could calculate, for example, the trajectory of a missile. Computers at this time, however, were still slow, prone to failure and in need of endless fiddling by engineers.

Electronic

The next major leap was in 1937 when Claude Shannon, a very bright student of Bush’s, wrote a master’s thesis at MIT called “A Symbolic Analysis of Relay and Switching Circuits.”5 It showed that electronic relays could be used to carry out binary logic operations. Until this point, there was the concept of binary logic but not reliable electrical materials to execute it. Shannon discovered that relays could switch on and off, thereby changing the direction of electrical flow and allowing for new logical operations. This is very similar to how transistors work, which were invented about ten years later at the Bell Telephone Labs in New Jersey.6

We can think of the transistor as the smallest conceptual building block in a computer. Transistors have three legs, or terminals, called the collector, base and emitter. The signal comes in through the base, pulls current into the collector, which gets amplified through the emitter. This is one of the essential features of the transistor, that it can amplify a signal. If the signal is really small or noisy, it can still get a clean output from the transistor. This makes long distance communication possible because while we can easily talk to each other in this room, we’d need to amplify the signal to communicate over a larger distance.

The other essential feature of the transistor is its ability to switch on and off, thereby enabling binary logic. Recall that Shannon’s relays, which directly preceded the transistor, also made binary logic possible. While an electrical current can only travel in one direction, transistors, by switching on or off, can change the direction of the current. Zeroes and ones in computers, by the way, are simply these changes in the electrical current. These simple characteristics of transistors made it possible to build electrical circuits that could compute exceedingly complex logic.

1Charles Petzold, Code: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software (Redmond: Microsoft Press, 1999). http://www.charlespetzold.com/code/index.html

2David Alan Grier, When Computers Were Human (Princeton: Princeton University Press: 2005).

Reference Image Programmers of ENIAC, 1946: Via @ Philly Voice

3Charles Petzold, Code: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software.

4As we’ll see, this is different from digital computers which operate with discrete (electronic) signals with decision-making capacity.

5 Claude Elwood Shannon, “A Symbolic Analysis of Relay and Switching Circuits.” (Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1940), http://hdl.handle.net/1721.1/11173.

6Priya Ganapati, “Dec. 23, 1947: Transistor Opens Door to Digital Future,” Wired, December 23, 2009, https://www.wired.com/2009/12/1223shockley-bardeen-brattain-transistor/.

Chapt. 01:

What is poetic about computation?

Introduction

Greetings. Welcome to the first class of Poetics and Politics of Computation at the School for Poetic Computation(SFPC). I’d like to begin the class by asking “What is poetic computation?” First, there is the poetics of code, which refers to code as a form of poetry. There is something poetic about code itself, the way that syntax works, the way that repetitions work, and the way that instruction becomes execution through abstraction. There is also what I call the poetic effect of code, which is an aesthetic experience realized through code. In other words, when the mechanics of words are in the right place, the language transcends its constraints and rules, and in turn, creates this poetic effect whereby thought is transformed into experience.

Together, the poetics of code and the poetic effect of code form ‘poetic computation.’ The terms code and computation are often used interchangeably, but I should note that code is only one aspect of computation. Code is a series of instruction for computation that requires logical systems and hardware to make the instructions computable. In that sense, computation is a higher level concept than code. For our purposes, however, we can use poetics of code and poetics of computation interchangeably throughout these discussions.

To a non-coder, non-artist friend, or to those just beginning to learn to program, I often say code may look like poetry in an alien language. And to those more experienced with code, writing code sometimes feels like writing poetry because it doesn’t always ‘work.’ I mean two things by ‘work’: first, does it work as an art form? Is it good poetry? On the other hand, I mean ‘work’ in a more utilitarian sense. Does it have practical application?

At SFPC, we like to think that poetic computation is when language meets mathematics, and logic meets electricity. Sometimes, poetic computation is literally writing poems with code. Some of our teachers and students write poetry with algorithms to explore what the language can do. When we started the school, a lot of people asked if the school is for generative poetry or electronic literature. We clarified that while we are definitely interested in the intersection of language and computation, we want to explore a broader definition of the ‘poetic.’ We want to investigate the art of computation as well as the expressive qualities of code, including its aesthetic, visual, aural and material aspects.

While this artistic potential lies at the core of the school’s excitement about code and computation, I’m interested in how this turn towards art may help us explore political possibilities. In this class, I consider computation to be a lens for examining reality and thinking about emergent issues in the world. In other words, computation can be a vehicle for imagining new ways of being in the world. Let’s first step back to look at material precedents of modern computation and computers.

Genealogy of computers

The first computers were human.1 Long before electronic computers were invented, ‘computing’ was a profession for people who calculated and managed data. The (human) computers worked with mathematicians to execute algorithms and theories. Mathematicians would ask the (human) computers to work on the numbers.2 Often times, there would be multiple (human) computers working on the same algorithms in order to detect and prevent mistakes. Considering the history, it’s curious that we’ve created such a dichotomy between computers and humans these days. In a sense we are all computers (people who compute). Computers need not always be metallic, electronic or very distinct from us. Computer scientists, among others, may be wary of my broad definition of computers, but I like to think computers are whenever a logical way of thinking is applied to a given problem.

We can trace the evolution of contemporary computers from operations research around World War II to management science in the second half of the 20th century. Operations research mainly focused on calculations for ballistic missiles and planning logistics for moving large numbers of troops at the same time, while management science, which grew out of operations research, included anything from accounting to quantitative research. Actually, much of the software we use today, such as Microsoft Excel and Word, Gmail and Facebook, share a distant lineage to both.

Operations research and management science are related because they both were influenced by the discipline of cybernetics, the theory of self-regulating systems comprised of feedback loops. When these self-regulating systems were accompanied by powerful computers, it made possible the centralization and decentralization of information and material goods on a vast scale. The tension between these two states marked temporary crises and resolutions in Capitalism, manifest as production and dispersion, times of abundance and scarcity, or even war and peace. In this way, war machines and international finance share the same ancestors. As we move on, it’s important to keep in mind that I’m presenting an incomplete genealogy of computers, and I encourage you to go back after the talk and explore the specifics.

In the early 19th century, Charles Babbage, an English mathematician and engineer, invented arguably the first mechanical computer. This tabulating machine, designed to calculate large sets of data, was built with the materials and technology available to Babbage at the time. It was an era of ships, railroads, and lots of mechanical inventions, so he constructed his computer as a system of moving gears. Very mechanical!

It’s interesting to think in general about how people’s ideas for inventions were constrained by the materials available to them. In fact, the history of computers is closely related to discovery of new materials. It is thus remarkable that Babbage managed to imbue his mechanical computer with the conceptual framework of the not-yet-possible computers. The Analytical Engine, one of the incomplete prototypes by Babbage, became a platform for Ada Lovelace, a mathematician, to collaborate and create algorithms. In this way, Lovelace came to be considered one of the first ‘computer programmers,’ a person who instructs machines in automated tasks.3

The analog computer was a stepping stone to the digital computer because while it still had mechanical components, it also had analog components that used a continuous (electrical) signal.4 Vannevar Bush, a mathematician and electrical engineer, who we’ll discuss more next week, did critical work on the analog computer. Its components included disc and wheel mechanisms that could calculate, for example, the trajectory of a missile. Computers at this time, however, were still slow, prone to failure and in need of endless fiddling by engineers.

The next major leap was in 1937 when Claude Shannon, a very bright student of Bush’s, wrote a master’s thesis at MIT called “A Symbolic Analysis of Relay and Switching Circuits.”5 It showed that electronic relays could be used to carry out binary logic operations. Until this point, there was the concept of binary logic but not reliable electrical materials to execute it. Shannon discovered that relays could switch on and off, thereby changing the direction of electrical flow and allowing for new logical operations. This is very similar to how transistors work, which were invented about ten years later at the Bell Telephone Labs in New Jersey.6

We can think of the transistor as the smallest conceptual building block in a computer. Transistors have three legs, or terminals, called the collector, base and emitter. The signal comes in through the base, pulls current into the collector, which gets amplified through the emitter. This is one of the essential features of the transistor, that it can amplify a signal. If the signal is really small or noisy, it can still get a clean output from the transistor. This makes long distance communication possible because while we can easily talk to each other in this room, we’d need to amplify the signal to communicate over a larger distance.

The other essential feature of the transistor is its ability to switch on and off, thereby enabling binary logic. Recall that Shannon’s relays, which directly preceded the transistor, also made binary logic possible. While an electrical current can only travel in one direction, transistors, by switching on or off, can change the direction of the current. Zeroes and ones in computers, by the way, are simply these changes in the electrical current. These simple characteristics of transistors made it possible to build electrical circuits that could compute exceedingly complex logic.

1Charles Petzold, Code: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software (Redmond: Microsoft Press, 1999). http://www.charlespetzold.com/code/index.html

2David Alan Grier, When Computers Were Human (Princeton: Princeton University Press: 2005).

Programmers of ENIAC, 1946: Via @ Philly Voice

3Charles Petzold, Code: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software.

4As we’ll see, this is different from digital computers which operate with discrete (electronic) signals with decision-making capacity.

5 Claude Elwood Shannon, “A Symbolic Analysis of Relay and Switching Circuits.” (Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1940), http://hdl.handle.net/1721.1/11173.

6Priya Ganapati, “Dec. 23, 1947: Transistor Opens Door to Digital Future,” Wired, December 23, 2009, https://www.wired.com/2009/12/1223shockley-bardeen-brattain-transistor/.

8

Integrated Circuit

Another major development occurred about ten years later when the integrated circuit (IC) was invented. Now, instead of clunky assemblages of transistors, it was possible to pack a huge number of transistors onto a single chip, which meant a faster, smaller component and the possibility of cheap mass production. Over time, ICs have become even more powerful as they gave way to tiny, resilient silicon-based circuits that could be designed as any type of circuitry. These integrated circuits can be found in a majority of our most commonly used electronics.

Another industry standard of sorts that emerged around this time is the central processing unit (CPU), often referred to as ‘von Neumann architecture’ after the mathematician who came up with the design. Instead of a physical distinction between hardware and software, the CPU designates one and the same space to hold the data and execute the software. This means that the code (i.e. the instructions) is equivalent to the data itself. These cumulative discoveries and iterations accelerated the evolution of digital computers.

These significant advancements were driven by military industrial agendas, no question. But is it possible to imagine a different relationship with computers? What are some clues to undo that damaging legacy? Perhaps some clues reside in the poetics of computers, so let’s investigate that.

Poetics: Abstraction and Repetition

Consider the following: abstract paintings by Peter Halley, a microscopic image of an integrated circuit, and a CPU diagram. I find common visual qualities in these three images, aesthetic qualities that are influenced by an ethos of industrialization. These images are characterized by a certain type of repetition and abstraction. Repetition is a powerful way to perform complex tasks by breaking them down into a series of a simple operations, enabling a basic pattern to scale to larger, more abstract and complex structures. We might note that repetition is also an essential technique of poetry. The images, in their abstraction, also hold a sense of the sublime for me. The sublime is the experience of something that is beyond judgment, such as having a transcendent encounter with nature. This sublime elegance in computation propelled me to ask if we could use these aesthetics to envision a different narrative of technology.

All of us here are friendly with technology. We like technology or are curious about it, but we are a very particular group of people. The rest of the world depends on computational technology but often takes it for granted. Even in developing parts of the world, cell phones and different modes of transportation have computation inside of them. Our lives are stored in bits in computational memory. The way we communicate is always mediated through some sort of network, and I like to think of the spaces we inhabit as living sized pixels. We occupy some pixels in the world, known as the whole world, and we occupy some pixels in a computer, which is known as a world.

I was thinking about what is behind the interface. What is happening behind the glossy screen? I started looking at CPU structures as research. CPUs embody a lot of the ideas that we are talking about as well as the history of computation. What is both amazing and frightening about the computer is that it’s just binary numbers and logics at its core. It’s all zeros and ones, but we are still able to experience and communicate the conditions between zeros and ones. This is important because the world is not completely dark or completely light, it’s always in between, it’s always in transition.

How can we communicate the dawn and the dusk? And the seasons between spring and summer? The emotions that we don’t have words for? All this in between stuff that makes us who we are, that makes the world what it is. How can computation simulate that? Or does it fail to do this and it is our imagination that completes it?

When we started the school I started making a computer by hand. I had some experience with code and microcontrollers like Arduino, but I didn’t like using them because it was still a black box and it was hard to understand what was actually happening. So I started making computers from scratch. I made them from wood, paper, and eletronics, and I really enjoyed it.

Handmade Computer, Taeyoon Choi, 2015

In 2015, I exhibited the process of making a handmade computer as an artwork. This is a 64 Bit RAM and 10 step counter, so it is cycling through ten states and you can encode four bits of information and recall them. It’s the first computer I built that I can say is my design because before then I was just copying the history of computer design. Handmade computers is how I approach computation. What makes a computer so powerful is that it doesn’t mind repeating the small tasks, whereas we humans get bored and tired so easily. Working on the Handmade Computer project, I had to endure repetitive soldering and wiring. In a sense, the laborious process was a search for the poetics of computation.

For a more detailed and technical overview of the computer's development and internal workings, refer to Handmade Computer on Avant.org.

Again, what is the poetics of computation? The origin of the word poetics is Poïesis, which means to create and give form. What is the form of computer? What factors were in place to give this particular form to it? Perhaps by making a computer by hand, we can think about the poetic effect of computation. How can computers create the varying senses of time coexisting in a space? Can we consider code as language rather than technology? After all, computation is not merely a technological subject, but a kind of medium and spirit that runs contemporary society. I will explore the concepts of poetic computation throughout the lectures, and especially in Lecture 5 on Translation. For now, I’d like to steer our conversation toward the question of the politics of code.

Reference Image Flip-Flop Circuit in an Integrated Circuit: Via @ Smithsonian, State of the Art, ©Copyright Stan Augarten

Chapt. 01:

Chapter One Page 2

Another major development occurred about ten years later when the integrated circuit (IC) was invented. Now, instead of clunky assemblages of transistors, it was possible to pack a huge number of transistors onto a single chip, which meant a faster, smaller component and the possibility of cheap mass production. Over time, ICs have become even more powerful as they gave way to tiny, resilient silicon-based circuits that could be designed as any type of circuitry. These integrated circuits can be found in a majority of our most commonly used electronics.

Another industry standard of sorts that emerged around this time is the central processing unit (CPU), often referred to as ‘von Neumann architecture’ after the mathematician who came up with the design. Instead of a physical distinction between hardware and software, the CPU designates one and the same space to hold the data and execute the software. This means that the code (i.e. the instructions) is equivalent to the data itself. These cumulative discoveries and iterations accelerated the evolution of digital computers.

These significant advancements were driven by military industrial agendas, no question. But is it possible to imagine a different relationship with computers? What are some clues to undo that damaging legacy? Perhaps some clues reside in the poetics of computers, so let’s investigate that.

Poetics: Abstraction and Repetition

Consider the following: abstract paintings by Peter Halley, a microscopic image of an integrated circuit, and a CPU diagram. I find common visual qualities in these three images, aesthetic qualities that are influenced by an ethos of industrialization. These images are characterized by a certain type of repetition and abstraction. Repetition is a powerful way to perform complex tasks by breaking them down into a series of a simple operations, enabling a basic pattern to scale to larger, more abstract and complex structures. We might note that repetition is also an essential technique of poetry. The images, in their abstraction, also hold a sense of the sublime for me. The sublime is the experience of something that is beyond judgment, such as having a transcendent encounter with nature. This sublime elegance in computation propelled me to ask if we could use these aesthetics to envision a different narrative of technology.

All of us here are friendly with technology. We like technology or are curious about it, but we are a very particular group of people. The rest of the world depends on computational technology but often takes it for granted. Even in developing parts of the world, cell phones and different modes of transportation have computation inside of them. Our lives are stored in bits in computational memory. The way we communicate is always mediated through some sort of network, and I like to think of the spaces we inhabit as living sized pixels. We occupy some pixels in the world, known as the whole world, and we occupy some pixels in a computer, which is known as a world.

I was thinking about what is behind the interface. What is happening behind the glossy screen? I started looking at CPU structures as research. CPUs embody a lot of the ideas that we are talking about as well as the history of computation. What is both amazing and frightening about the computer is that it’s just binary numbers and logics at its core. It’s all zeros and ones, but we are still able to experience and communicate the conditions between zeros and ones. This is important because the world is not completely dark or completely light, it’s always in between, it’s always in transition.

How can we communicate the dawn and the dusk? And the seasons between spring and summer? The emotions that we don’t have words for? All this in between stuff that makes us who we are, that makes the world what it is. How can computation simulate that? Or does it fail to do this and it is our imagination that completes it?

When we started the school I started making a computer by hand. I had some experience with code and microcontrollers like Arduino, but I didn’t like using them because it was still a black box and it was hard to understand what was actually happening. So I started making computers from scratch. I made them from wood, paper, and eletronics, and I really enjoyed it.

In 2015, I exhibited the process of making a handmade computer as an artwork. This is a 64 Bit RAM and 10 step counter, so it is cycling through ten states and you can encode four bits of information and recall them. It’s the first computer I built that I can say is my design because before then I was just copying the history of computer design. Handmade computers is how I approach computation. What makes a computer so powerful is that it doesn’t mind repeating the small tasks, whereas we humans get bored and tired so easily. Working on the Handmade Computer project, I had to endure repetitive soldering and wiring. In a sense, the laborious process was a search for the poetics of computation.

For a more detailed and technical overview of the computer's development and internal workings, refer to Handmade Computer on Avant.org.

Again, what is the poetics of computation? The origin of the word poetics is Poïesis, which means to create and give form. What is the form of computer? What factors were in place to give this particular form to it? Perhaps by making a computer by hand, we can think about the poetic effect of computation. How can computers create the varying senses of time coexisting in a space? Can we consider code as language rather than technology? After all, computation is not merely a technological subject, but a kind of medium and spirit that runs contemporary society. I will explore the concepts of poetic computation throughout the lectures, and especially in Lecture 5 on Translation. For now, I’d like to steer our conversation toward the question of the politics of code.

Flip-Flop Circuit in an Integrated Circuit: Via @ Smithsonian, State of the Art, ©Copyright Stan Augarten
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Politics: What technology wants and what we want?

I want to ask about the sense of ethics in relation to technological progress. Development of technology is always intertwined with ethical responsibilities. Employing engineering concepts and tools for creative expression also come with ethical responsibilities. The history of computing is not only about the wonders, the genius and spectacles. In fact, early computers were a byproduct of operations research for the war. It’s important to understand computers were developed in different parts of the world at the same time. In the U.S., the most significant development involved the Manhattan project, which took place here (at 155 Bank St, NYC, current home of SFPC) and at various research universities and government research facilities.

I want to return to a figure I introduced earlier, John Von Neumann, whose name is still credited as the architect of the Central Processing Units found in most contemporary computers. He was a highly celebrated engineer, often considered as one of the fathers of modern computing. In my perspective, he was a deeply problematic man. He may have been a scientific prodigy, but he was also a technocrat (one who tries to use technology to govern people) who unquestionably devoted his genius toward the invention of war machines. When Von Neumann worked for the government on major military assignments during and after WWII, he garnered a tremendous amount of power, especially when it came to the atomic bomb. In debating the target, Von Neumann tried to insist on Kyoto instead of Hiroshima, reasoning that its greater population and history would maximize the material and symbolic impact of atomic destruction.7 This anecdote suggests he had very little empathy for humans and culture. His belief in technology and his self-righteousness along with many other men involved in the war, created the conditions for Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. The atomic bombing was arguably one of the most horrific thing anyone has ever done, to kill so many people, so many innocent bystanders. To this day, I’m surprised the catastrophe isn’t talked about as much in the history of computing, especially when discussing operations research. People discuss machines that kill but don’t talk about those who are killed or the profound coyness of defense contractors. All computational technology in its infancy was enlisted in the service of war.

As artists working with technology, it’s possible to distance ourselves from the narratives of progress and spectacle. However, we must be cautious of technology. Technology works towards a certain kind of art. In his famous essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin directly addressed the Futurists, a group of Italian avant garde artists led by Marinetti. The Futurists and their obscure inventions are often considered early pioneers of new media artists because they actively used modern technology such as sound and films. The Futurists were vocal supporters of Italian Fascists like Mussolini, and identified as one of them. They often praised the war as the ultimate form of beauty. In a sense, they were trying to reinvent the world through war. Benjamin quotes the Futurist Manifesto and provides his commentary.

‘For twenty-seven years we Futurists have rebelled against the branding of war as anti-aesthetic ... Accordingly we state:... War is beautiful because it establishes man’s dominion over the subjugated machinery by means of gas masks, terrifying megaphones, flame throwers, and small tanks. War is beautiful because it initiates the dreamt-of metalization of the human body. War is beautiful because it enriches a flowering meadow with the fiery orchids of machine guns. War is beautiful because it combines the gunfire, the cannonades, the cease-fire, the scents, and the stench of putrefaction into a symphony. War is beautiful because it creates new architecture, like that of the big tanks, the geometrical formation flights, the smoke spirals from burning villages, and many others ... Poets and artists of Futurism! ... remember these principles of an aesthetics of war so that your struggle for a new literature and a new graphic art ... may be illumined by them!’

This manifesto has the virtue of clarity. Its formulations deserve to be accepted by dialecticians. To the latter, the aesthetics of today’s war appears as follows: If the natural utilization of productive forces is impeded by the property system, the increase in technical devices, in speed, and in the sources of energy will press for an unnatural utilization, and this is found in war. The destructiveness of war furnishes proof that society has not been mature enough to incorporate technology as its organ, that technology has not been sufficiently developed to cope with the elemental forces of society.8

Reading the Futurist Manifesto is scary. I have a similarly uneasy feeling when I look at some new media artwork that echoes the technocratic agenda, or art that celebrates technical possibilities without careful consideration of the context. Technology is biased towards certain forms of art; it is not neutral. I’d like to extend my argument to critique technocracy as well as ‘technological solutionism,’ a belief that technology will save us from our problems. Benjamin’s comment suggests progress in technology leads to a surplus of material resources but not necessarily society’s readiness to take care of the wealth and the people. Instead, society turns to abusing the products of progress into it’s own destruction. Technology does not save us. Instead, we need to save history from technology's tendency towards demise.

End note

Finally, I’d like to ask a question. As artists, are we working with technology because it is a medium available us? or are we contributing to a form of technocracy, wittingly or unwittingly? It is no surprise that many new media artists work for corporations. It is no surprise that a lot engineers cultivate creative technology work for DARPA.9 It’s no surprise that open source initiatives may have unintended consequences, or wielded in the service of malevolent aims. It’s no surprise that a lot of the push toward transparency and openness (in social network) can lead to invasion of privacy. This field that we contribute to is deeply complex and contains issues and unknown factors. How can we create work that challenges the present moment? How can our work contribute to a future that doesn’t repeat the mistakes from the past? How can we use technology for subversive purposes? I return to Walter Benjamin’s Theses on the philosophy of history for advice:

Paul Klee, Angelus Novus, 1920: Via @ Wikipedia

A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress. 10

When Walter Benjamin wrote “This storm is what we call progress,” he was referring to the idea of perpetual ‘progress’ in Historical Materialism and the tendency to equate progress with the future. This ‘storm’ is analogous to unexamined innovation and reformation which can take the form of perpetual war. Perhaps this last sentence, “this storm is what we call progress,” asks us to invert the common perspective that we take responsibility for the past and project alternatives for the future. Instead, we may consider looking at the present with responsibility for the future and to take care of the present by addressing the past.

I believe our work as artists can be writing a counter-narrative to mainstream media and history governed by capitalism. As artists and creative practitioners, I believe we can create a counter-narrative to reanimate unheard voices from history. Such work can be the foundation for a counter-archive, an archive that brings truth to light.

Making electronic circuits and coding has a sense of jouissance. It’s very liberating to work with these materials in expressive manners. The kind of joy is similar to live drawing on a wall, without the boundaries, free drawing in the air. It’s a chance to transgress the discipline, the constraints within the medium, the particular complexities that it inhabits. If our art work becomes political praxis, we have a chance to write a counter-narrative to the mainstream narrative. Our work has the potential to become an independent inquiry into creating the future we want.

Bibliography

Benjamin, Walter. “Theses on the philosophy of history,” Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Translated by Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken, 1969.

---. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Marxist Internet Archive. Accessed March 26, 2017. https://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/ge/benjamin.htm.

DeLanda, Manuel. War in the Age of Intelligent Machines. New York: Zone Books, 1991.

Dougherty, Dale. “Makerspaces in Education and DARPA,” Make:, April 4, 2012. http://makezine.com/2012/04/04/makerspaces-in-education-and-darpa/.

Galloway, Alex. “Being is a Computational Mode.” Culture and Communication. May 27, 2016. http://cultureandcommunication.org/galloway/being-is-a-computational-mode.

Ganapati, Priya. “Dec. 23, 1947: Transistor Opens Door to Digital Future.” Wired. December 23, 2009. https://www.wired.com/2009/12/1223shockley-bardeen-brattain-transistor/.

Grier, David Alan. When Computers Were Human. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.

Kittler, Friedrich. Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. Translated by Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999.

Macrae, Norman. John von Neumann: The Scientific Genius Who Pioneered the Modern Computer, Game Theory, Nuclear Deterrence, and Much More. New York: Pantheon Books, 1992.

O’Leary, Amy. “Worries Over Defense Department Money for ‘Hackerspaces,’” New York Times, Oct. 5, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/06/us/worries-over-defense-dept-money-for-hackerspaces.html.

Petzold, Charles. Code: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software. Redmond: Microsoft Press, 1999.

Shannon, Claude Elwood. “A Symbolic Analysis of Relay and Switching Circuits.” Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1940.

Waldrop, M. Mitchell. “Claude Shannon: Reluctant Father of the Digital Age.” MIT Technology Review. July 1, 2001. https://www.technologyreview.com/s/401112/claude-shannon-reluctant-father-of-the-digital-age/.

7Norman Macrae, John von Neumann: The Scientific Genius Who Pioneered the Modern Computer, Game Theory, Nuclear Deterrence, and Much More (New York: Pantheon Books, 1992). Also see: http://blog.nuclearsecrecy.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/1945-05-02-Notes-on-the-Initial-Meeting-of-the-Target-Committee.pdf.

Reference Image Image: Via @ Restricted Data
Reference Image Intonarumori by Luigi Russolo: Via @ Wikipedia

8Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936) Marxist Internet Archive. Accessed March 26, 2017.

9 Amy, O’Leary, Worries Over Defense Department Money for ‘Hackerspaces,’” New York Times, (New York, NY), Oct. 5, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/06/us/worries-over-defense-dept-money-for-hackerspaces.html

Dale Dougherty, Makerspaces in Education and DARPA, Make:, April 4, 2012, http://makezine.com/2012/04/04/makerspaces-in-education-and-darpa/.

10 Walter, Benjamin. “Theses on the philosophy of history,” Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), 249.

Chapt. 01:

Chapter One Page 3

Politics: What technology wants and what we want?

I want to ask about the sense of ethics in relation to technological progress. Development of technology is always intertwined with ethical responsibilities. Employing engineering concepts and tools for creative expression also come with ethical responsibilities. The history of computing is not only about the wonders, the genius and spectacles. In fact, early computers were a byproduct of operations research for the war. It’s important to understand computers were developed in different parts of the world at the same time. In the U.S., the most significant development involved the Manhattan project, which took place here (at 155 Bank St, NYC, current home of SFPC) and at various research universities and government research facilities.

I want to return to a figure I introduced earlier, John Von Neumann, whose name is still credited as the architect of the Central Processing Units found in most contemporary computers. He was a highly celebrated engineer, often considered as one of the fathers of modern computing. In my perspective, he was a deeply problematic man. He may have been a scientific prodigy, but he was also a technocrat (one who tries to use technology to govern people) who unquestionably devoted his genius toward the invention of war machines. When Von Neumann worked for the government on major military assignments during and after WWII, he garnered a tremendous amount of power, especially when it came to the atomic bomb. In debating the target, Von Neumann tried to insist on Kyoto instead of Hiroshima, reasoning that its greater population and history would maximize the material and symbolic impact of atomic destruction.7 This anecdote suggests he had very little empathy for humans and culture. His belief in technology and his self-righteousness along with many other men involved in the war, created the conditions for Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. The atomic bombing was arguably one of the most horrific thing anyone has ever done, to kill so many people, so many innocent bystanders. To this day, I’m surprised the catastrophe isn’t talked about as much in the history of computing, especially when discussing operations research. People discuss machines that kill but don’t talk about those who are killed or the profound coyness of defense contractors. All computational technology in its infancy was enlisted in the service of war.

As artists working with technology, it’s possible to distance ourselves from the narratives of progress and spectacle. However, we must be cautious of technology. Technology works towards a certain kind of art. In his famous essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin directly addressed the Futurists, a group of Italian avant garde artists led by Marinetti. The Futurists and their obscure inventions are often considered early pioneers of new media artists because they actively used modern technology such as sound and films. The Futurists were vocal supporters of Italian Fascists like Mussolini, and identified as one of them. They often praised the war as the ultimate form of beauty. In a sense, they were trying to reinvent the world through war. Benjamin quotes the Futurist Manifesto and provides his commentary.

‘For twenty-seven years we Futurists have rebelled against the branding of war as anti-aesthetic ... Accordingly we state:... War is beautiful because it establishes man’s dominion over the subjugated machinery by means of gas masks, terrifying megaphones, flame throwers, and small tanks. War is beautiful because it initiates the dreamt-of metalization of the human body. War is beautiful because it enriches a flowering meadow with the fiery orchids of machine guns. War is beautiful because it combines the gunfire, the cannonades, the cease-fire, the scents, and the stench of putrefaction into a symphony. War is beautiful because it creates new architecture, like that of the big tanks, the geometrical formation flights, the smoke spirals from burning villages, and many others ... Poets and artists of Futurism! ... remember these principles of an aesthetics of war so that your struggle for a new literature and a new graphic art ... may be illumined by them!’

This manifesto has the virtue of clarity. Its formulations deserve to be accepted by dialecticians. To the latter, the aesthetics of today’s war appears as follows: If the natural utilization of productive forces is impeded by the property system, the increase in technical devices, in speed, and in the sources of energy will press for an unnatural utilization, and this is found in war. The destructiveness of war furnishes proof that society has not been mature enough to incorporate technology as its organ, that technology has not been sufficiently developed to cope with the elemental forces of society.8

Reading the Futurist Manifesto is scary. I have a similarly uneasy feeling when I look at some new media artwork that echoes the technocratic agenda, or art that celebrates technical possibilities without careful consideration of the context. Technology is biased towards certain forms of art; it is not neutral. I’d like to extend my argument to critique technocracy as well as ‘technological solutionism,’ a belief that technology will save us from our problems. Benjamin’s comment suggests progress in technology leads to a surplus of material resources but not necessarily society’s readiness to take care of the wealth and the people. Instead, society turns to abusing the products of progress into it’s own destruction. Technology does not save us. Instead, we need to save history from technology's tendency towards demise.

End note

Finally, I’d like to ask a question. As artists, are we working with technology because it is a medium available us? or are we contributing to a form of technocracy, wittingly or unwittingly? It is no surprise that many new media artists work for corporations. It is no surprise that a lot engineers cultivate creative technology work for DARPA.9 It’s no surprise that open source initiatives may have unintended consequences, or wielded in the service of malevolent aims. It’s no surprise that a lot of the push toward transparency and openness (in social network) can lead to invasion of privacy. This field that we contribute to is deeply complex and contains issues and unknown factors. How can we create work that challenges the present moment? How can our work contribute to a future that doesn’t repeat the mistakes from the past? How can we use technology for subversive purposes? I return to Walter Benjamin’s Theses on the philosophy of history for advice:

A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress. 10

When Walter Benjamin wrote “This storm is what we call progress,” he was referring to the idea of perpetual ‘progress’ in Historical Materialism and the tendency to equate progress with the future. This ‘storm’ is analogous to unexamined innovation and reformation which can take the form of perpetual war. Perhaps this last sentence, “this storm is what we call progress,” asks us to invert the common perspective that we take responsibility for the past and project alternatives for the future. Instead, we may consider looking at the present with responsibility for the future and to take care of the present by addressing the past.

I believe our work as artists can be writing a counter-narrative to mainstream media and history governed by capitalism. As artists and creative practitioners, I believe we can create a counter-narrative to reanimate unheard voices from history. Such work can be the foundation for a counter-archive, an archive that brings truth to light.

Making electronic circuits and coding has a sense of jouissance. It’s very liberating to work with these materials in expressive manners. The kind of joy is similar to live drawing on a wall, without the boundaries, free drawing in the air. It’s a chance to transgress the discipline, the constraints within the medium, the particular complexities that it inhabits. If our art work becomes political praxis, we have a chance to write a counter-narrative to the mainstream narrative. Our work has the potential to become an independent inquiry into creating the future we want.

Bibliography

Benjamin, Walter. “Theses on the philosophy of history,” Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Translated by Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken, 1969.

---. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Marxist Internet Archive. Accessed March 26, 2017. https://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/ge/benjamin.htm.

DeLanda, Manuel. War in the Age of Intelligent Machines. New York: Zone Books, 1991.

Dougherty, Dale. “Makerspaces in Education and DARPA,” Make:, April 4, 2012. http://makezine.com/2012/04/04/makerspaces-in-education-and-darpa/.

Galloway, Alex. “Being is a Computational Mode.” Culture and Communication. May 27, 2016. http://cultureandcommunication.org/galloway/being-is-a-computational-mode.

Ganapati, Priya. “Dec. 23, 1947: Transistor Opens Door to Digital Future.” Wired. December 23, 2009. https://www.wired.com/2009/12/1223shockley-bardeen-brattain-transistor/.

Grier, David Alan. When Computers Were Human. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.

Kittler, Friedrich. Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. Translated by Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999.

Macrae, Norman. John von Neumann: The Scientific Genius Who Pioneered the Modern Computer, Game Theory, Nuclear Deterrence, and Much More. New York: Pantheon Books, 1992.

O’Leary, Amy. “Worries Over Defense Department Money for ‘Hackerspaces,’” New York Times, Oct. 5, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/06/us/worries-over-defense-dept-money-for-hackerspaces.html.

Petzold, Charles. Code: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software. Redmond: Microsoft Press, 1999.

Shannon, Claude Elwood. “A Symbolic Analysis of Relay and Switching Circuits.” Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1940.

Waldrop, M. Mitchell. “Claude Shannon: Reluctant Father of the Digital Age.” MIT Technology Review. July 1, 2001. https://www.technologyreview.com/s/401112/claude-shannon-reluctant-father-of-the-digital-age/.

7Norman Macrae, John von Neumann: The Scientific Genius Who Pioneered the Modern Computer, Game Theory, Nuclear Deterrence, and Much More (New York: Pantheon Books, 1992). Also see: http://blog.nuclearsecrecy.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/1945-05-02-Notes-on-the-Initial-Meeting-of-the-Target-Committee.pdf.

Image: Via @ Restricted Data
Intonarumori by Luigi Russolo: Via @ Wikipedia

8Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936) Marxist Internet Archive. Accessed March 26, 2017.

9 Amy, O’Leary, Worries Over Defense Department Money for ‘Hackerspaces,’” New York Times, (New York, NY), Oct. 5, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/06/us/worries-over-defense-dept-money-for-hackerspaces.html

Dale Dougherty, Makerspaces in Education and DARPA, Make:, April 4, 2012, http://makezine.com/2012/04/04/makerspaces-in-education-and-darpa/.

10 Walter, Benjamin. “Theses on the philosophy of history,” Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), 249.

Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8