Blockchain Geometries

Data structures hold information in a way that makes it easier to be manipulated by software, given particular constraints on computing resources such as the time or space taken up. A linked list takes very little space in a computer’s memory on top of the space taken up by the data it contains and is very quick to add new data to but it is very slow to search from the beginning to the end of the list.

Distributed Ledgers, image from


In contrast, a “hash table” data structure makes looking up information much faster by calculating a unique identifier “hash” for each item that can be used as an index entry for the data rather than having to search all the way through a long list of links. Think of a hash as a very large, very unique number that can be reliably calculated for any piece of data – any file containing the text “Hello world!” will have the same cryptographic hash as any other. The cost of this fast access is that the table must be allocated and configured in full before data can start to be stored in it.

A “binary tree” balances speed and storage space by storing data in a structure that looks like a tree with two branches at the end of each branch, creating a simple hierarchy that takes very little initial extra storage space but that given its structure is relatively fast to search compared to a linked list.

Each block in a blockchain is linked to the previous one by identifying it using its (cryptographic) hash value. And the transactions in the block are stored in a (cryptographic hash) tree. This means that a blockchain is a more complex structure than the simple image at the top of this page. But so what? Why should we care about the shape of the blockchain when its social, environmental and political impact seem to be in such urgent need of critique?

The geometric, techonomic and social form of a blockchain are all related, and understanding one helps us to reason better about the others. As the quick tour through software data structure design above indicates, the constraints on technological form are not abstract, they are tied to real needs and agendas. Bitcoin is no exception to this – the lists and trees that make up its blockchain as they are built and broadcast on a peer-to-peer network by computers competing to claim economic incentives for doing so were chosen very explicitly to exclude the intervention of the state and other “trusted third parties” (such as banks) in authentic economic relationships between peers.

Bitcoin’s algorithms prioritise the security of the blockchain above all else, maximising security like a mythical Artificial Intelligence “paperclipper” maximises the production of a particular material good regardless of the other consequences . This explains Bitcoin’s energy consumption, which whilst lower than the US military or the other equivalent systems that guarantee the security of the dollar is probably still much higher than Satoshi Nakamoto originally envisioned.

Bitcoin transaction diagram, from the original Bitcoin whitepaper

There are other algorithms, though, which have been created since 2008 to address perceived flaws in Bitcoin’s design or to address different ideological agendas. These create different forms, and contrast instructively with that of Bitcoin’s blockchain. Please note that these are experimental and often controversial technologies. Nothing that follows is investment advice.

Bitcoin creates blocks on average every ten minutes. Faster currencies quickly emerged, LiteCoin and Dogecoin are leading examples, with 2.5 minute and one minute block times respectively. Blocks may contain more or fewer transactions, and be more or less frequent even within the same blockchain as the algorithms tweak its parameters to ensure its security. Blockchains have rhythm, they stall or race, each block is larger or smaller and closer or further from the last one. Transactions fan into and out from addresses in each block, with varying values of currency or amounts of data each time. We are now very far from the block-and-arrow diagrams of linked lists indeed.

The Ethereum system, which extends Bitcoin’s financial ledger into a more general system for “smart contracts”, has the smallest block time of any leading cryptocurrency – fifteen seconds. Like the others mentioned it still uses a variant of the energy-hungry “Proof of Work” security system from Bitcoin. In Proof of Work, anyone who wants to add a block of transactions to the list must consume computing resources to solve a puzzle (essentially guessing a large number ending with multiple zeroes). As these resources cost money, anyone willing to expend them must stand to gain more from adding the next block than they lose to their electricity bill. This Game Theory gambit secures a Proof of Work blockchain. The mindlessly focussed, paperclipper nature of blockchain security algorithms means that as more people use more computers to compete to be the next person to add a block to the chain and claim the economic reward for doing so, the difficulty and therefore the amount of electricity required to solve that puzzle has increased massively, growing the energy footprint of cryptocurrency.

Ethereum is planning to switch to a “Proof of Stake” system, like that used in currencies like NXT and Decred (about which more below). Rather than burning electricity like Proof of Work, Proof of Stake uses a blockchain’s own existing currency “staked” by users to demonstrate their standing within the system and to thereby get a chance to be chosen by the network to add the next block. Proof of Stake and its related “Proof of Authority” system move from the “miners” of Proof of Work who operate on the blockchain from outside to a system of capitalist investors or even an aristocratic class of gatekeepers who operate within the logic of the blockchain itself. This folds the blockchain’s outside in on itself.

Bitcoin’s blocks have been fixed at one megabyte in size since a temporary security fix by Satoshi Nakamoto introduced the limit. As Bitcoin usage has grown, blocks have become increasingly full (allegedly often as a result of economic “spam” attacks intended to manipulate prices – competing for space in blocks drives up transaction fees which can in turn discourage users and ultimately drive down the price of Bitcoin). How should this problem be addressed – how should Bitcoin scale? Should the number of transactions stored in the blockchain grow, increasing the block size limit and making it harder for individuals to store the blockchain on consumer hardware in a decentralised manner? Or should transactions be somehow moved “off-chain” into “second-tier” systems that build on top of the blockchain, adding complexity and introducing potential new choke-points for existing capital to exploit? Big blocks or small blocks (like the big or little ends of eggs, or integers…)? This is a real debate in the Bitcoin world, and illustrates how the consequences of a simple change in technical form like, for example, increasing block sizes from one to two megabytes, can have profound effects on the social and economic form of a cryptocurrency. “Big blockers” propose solutions like the breakaway “Segwit2X” or “Bitcoin Cash” systems, scaling “on-chain” with ever greater amounts of data in the same structures. “Small blockers” propose solutions that move data out of the blockchain, into “Segregated Witnesses” that store cryptographic signatures outside of the blockchain, or the cybernetic rhizomes of “Lightning Networks”.

A Lightning Network adds a second peer-to-peer network of nodes that pass transactions between themselves. These are all valid Bitcoin transaction data structures, but unlike the main Bitcoin peer-to-peer network they are not immediately broadcast to the main Bitcoin network to be bundled up into blocks. Rather they can be replaced at any moment by new transactions, sending different amounts of cryptocurrency along a “channel” between one or (most often) more participants arranged in a random network like the one used by the Tor privacy network.

It’s an elegant but sometimes complex solution, and one that triggers moral panic within some elements of the Bitcoin community equivalent to that triggered by Bitcoin within some elements outside of it. Lightning Nodes with more Bitcoin can extract more fees from Lightning Network transactions, to be sure, and this is a form of centralisation. Decentralisation’s value to cryptocurrency is as a concrete guarantor of security, and Bitcoin’s value is its security. But individuals can still run Lightning Network nodes and send transactions between each other, and pools of capital already have centralising effects in exchanges and mining cartels.

Techniques similar to those used to move transactions off-chain by Lightning Networks can be used to move value between different blockchains without exchanges centralising the process. “Atomic Swaps”, the “Plasma” system and the realisation of the previously mythical “Doge-Ethereum bridge” using the TrueBit system are all different ways of building wormholes between the separate universes of individual blockchains.

Another approach to scaling is borrowed from conventional database design: breaking the blockchain into smaller and smaller pieces or “shards“, forming another tree structure, allows each group of users of the blockchain to only have to keep track of the part that contains the transactions they are interested in. The Ethereum blockchain will move to sharding in future, after its switch to Proof of Stake. Sharding destroys the metronomic, panopticonic unity of the blockchain to create islands of transactions whose truth is local to them, a non-monotonic logic that makes moving value and information between shards difficult but still not impossible.

CryptoKitties can go on their own shard, the Gnosis prediction market on another one, and if one needs to bet on something kitty-related this will require communicating cross-shard. From islands in the net to islands in the blockchain. Techonomically, the data structures and economic incentives of such a system are more complex than a unified blockchain, but making access to the network cheaper by requiring each user to store less data to send their transactions restores the blockchain’s initial low barrier of entry.

Deciding how to scale is a matter of governance. The Decred cryptocurrency has put governance front and centre. As well as moving to a hybrid Proof of Work / Proof of Stake system it has implemented an “on-chain-governance” system. Decred contains the forum for its own critique and transformation, implemented as an extension of the staking and voting system used by its Proof of Stake system. On-chain governance is controversial but addresses calls to improve the governance of cryptocurrency projects without falling prey to the off-chain voluntarism that can result from a failure to understand how the technomic and social forms of cryptocurrencies relate in finely-tuned balance.

Some post-Bitcoin systems move further away from the form of a chain or do without them altogether. The Holochain system gives each user their own personal blockchain and stores a link to it in a global “Distributed Hash Table” of entries (like that used by the BitTorrent system), a forest of trees rather than a tree of shards. This possibly solves the bandwidth problem of simple blockchain technology but weakens some of their strengths in a trade off of convenience against long-term security and robustness. Iota (the most controversial technical design discussed here) doesn’t have a blockchain at all. It uses a “tangle” of transactions, within which each new transaction must do the Proof of Work of validating several previous transactions. This seems like an ideal restoration of the original vision of Bitcoin as a peer-to-peer currency, solving the problems centralisation and energy usage, but the current Iota network is in fact heavily centralised by its reliance on nodes controlled by the Iota foundation to secure it.

IPFS is not a cryptocurrency and does not use a blockchain but it complements the blockchain technologically and often socially. IPFS is related to blockchain technology in its use of cryptography and the logic of game theory but also as a popular way of storing information that is too large to fit on the blockchain. And in its use of a cryptocurrency token – “Filecoin” – to pay for storage on its main network. Filecoin was released in an “Initial Coin Offering” in 2017, and that is all we will say about ICOs here… IPFS uses a “Merkle DAG”, a network of links similar to the World Wide Web or a filesystem, but with each item (the pages or files) represented not by a human-given name but by the cryptographic hash of its content. “Merkle” refers not to the German Chancellor but to the computer scientist who described this use of cryptographic hashes in a tree data structure (like that used in Bitcoin). “DAG” is an acronym for “Directed Acyclic Graph” – a network with no loops in it because loops would confuse the algorithm. IPFS distributes content using a “market” algorithm, bartering for blocks of data on the network with Filecoin or with other blocks.

Each of these pocket universes of social and economic reality has its own structure and forms, its own space and geometry. Chains, and being on or off of them. Blocks of different sizes and fullness, with varying distances between them. Channels, rhizomes, shards, tangles, mines and thrones. Forests, tables, graphs, markets and identities.  These formal differences distinguish different cryptocurrencies technologically and politically. Algorithmic differences are ideological differences, this is not an external critique it is internal to the logic of cryptocurrency – algorithms are changed to better instantiate what is just. These algorithmic differences produce formal differences. Their surplus value and unintended consequences continue this process of critique-in-code.

The question of the shape of the blockchain opens up onto a space of technomic, geometric and social forms. We can move through the hyperspace containing and relating these forms to the specific spaces of individual blockchains that are built around them, through the constraints and agendas that they reflect, out into wider society. The gaps and overlaps in this space indicate useful problems for the work of development or critique. Given this, geometries and forms are at least as useful a navigational marker as professed intentions or revealed preferences. But only if we can imagine and visualise them.

Computer render of Jessica Angel’s initial wireframe by artist Joe Luppiani. Artproject in collaboration with Truebit 2017-2018


Art deals in form, from the spatial volumes of Renaissance perspective to the choreography and logistics of Relational and Contemporary art. Whether promoting, like Jessica Angel’s public art envisioning of the Doge-Ethereum bridge as a Klein Bottle, critiquing or simply rendering perceptible the very different kinds of form that make up the geometric, technomic and social forms of the  blockchain and the relationships between them, art has the unique potential to uncover the true shape of the blockchain.

Image notes:
Simple Blockchain Art Diagram, by Rob Myers. 2016
What the Silk Road bitcoin seizure transaction network looks like, Reddit

Moods of Identification

Emily Rosamond

This essay is a response to Identity Trouble (on the blockchain), the second in the DAOWO lab series for blockchain and the arts. Rosamond reflects on both ongoing attempts to reliably verify identity, and continuing counter-efforts to evade such verifications.

Online transactions take place in a strange space: one that blurs the distinctions between the immediate and the remote, the intimate and the abstract. Credit card numbers, passing from fingers to keyboards to Amazon payment pages, manage complex relations between personal identity and financial capital that have been shifting for centuries. Flirtations on online dating platforms – loosely tied to embodied selves with a pic or two and a profile – constitute zones of indistinction between the intimate spheres of the super-personal, and hyper-distributed transnational circuits of surveillance-capital. Twitter-bot invectives mix with human tweets, swapping styles – while all the while bot-sniffing Twitter bots try to distinguish the “real” from the “fake” voices1. Questions of verification – Who is speaking? Who transacts? – proliferate in such spaces, take on a new shape and a shifted urgency.

How does personal identity interface with the complex and ever-changing technical infrastructures of verification? How is it possible to capture the texture of “identity trouble” in online contexts today? The second in the DAOWO event series, “Identity Trouble (on the blockchain),” addressed these questions, bringing together a range of artists, developers and theorists to address the problems and potentials of identification, using technical apparatuses ranging from blockchain, to online metrics, to ID cards and legal name changes. The day included reflections on both ongoing attempts to reliably verify identity, and continuing counter-efforts to evade such verifications.

1974 – 1978, artist Lynn Hershman-Leeson developed and performed a fictional persona, “Roberta Breitmore” complete with identity cards, a bank account and letters from her psychiatrist.


A Backdrop: Moods of Identification

Before going into the day in any detail (and at the risk of going over some already well-trodden ground), I want to try to piece together something which might – however partially – address the deeper histories of the problems we discussed. Of course, identity was an elusive concept long before the internet; and the philosophical search to understand it has run parallel to a slow evolution in the technical and semiotic procedures involved in its verification. In fact, seen from one angle, the period from the late nineteenth century to present can be understood as one in which an increasing drive to identify subjects (using photo ID cards, fingerprints, signatures, credit scores, passwords, and, now, algorithmic/psychometric analysis based on remote analysis of IP address activity) has been coupled with a deep questioning of the very concept of identity itself.

On the one hand, as John Tagg describes, in the second half of the nineteenth century, the restructuring of the nation-state and its disciplinary institutions (“police, prisons, asylums, hospitals, departments of public health, schools and even the modern factory system itself”2), depended on creating new procedures for identifying people. This involved, among other things, yoking photography to the evidentiary needs of the state – for instance, through Alphonse Bertillon’s anthropometric identity card system, invented in 1879 and adopted by French police in the 1880s. The identity cards, filed by police, included suspects’ photographs and measurements, and helped them spot repeat offenders.

Anthropometric data sheet of Alphonse Bertillon, inventor of anthropometry, first head of the Forensic Identification Service of the Prefecture de Police in Paris (1893)


This impulse to identify, it seems, has only expanded in recent times, given the proliferation of biometric and psychometric techniques designed to pin down persons. On the biometric end of this spectrum, retinal scans, biometric residence permits and gait recognition technologies manage people’s varying levels of freedom of movement, based on relatively immutable bodily identifiers (the retina; the photographic likeness; the fingerprint; the minute particularities of the gait). On the psychometric end of the spectrum, private companies calculate highly speculative characteristics in their customers by analysing their habits – such as “pain points.” The American casino chain Harrah’s, for instance, pioneered in analysing data from loyalty cards in real time, to calculate the hypothetical amount of losses a particular gambler would need to incur in order to leave the casino. The pain point – a hypothetical amount of losses calculated by the company, which may be unknown to the customer herself – then provided the basis for Harrah’s’ real-time micro-management of customer emotion, enabling them to send “luck ambassadors” out onto the floor in real time to boost the spirits of those who had a bad day3.

On the one hand, then, identification apparatuses have become ever more pervasively intertwined with the practices of daily life in industrialized societies since the latter half of the nineteenth century; this produced new forms of inclusion and exclusion of “exceptional” subjects within various institutional regimes. On the other hand, just as the technical and semiotic procedures associated with verifying identity were proliferating and becoming ever harder to evade, modern and postmodern thinkers were deeply questioning what, exactly, could possibly be identified by such procedures – and why identity had become such a prominent limiting condition in disciplinary societies. James Joyce’s character Stephen Dedalus marvels at the lack of cellular consistency in the body over a lifetime. While an identifying trait, such as a mole on the right breast, persists, the cells of which it is made regenerate repeatedly. (“Five months. Molecules all change. I am other I now.”4) How, then, can debts and deeds persist, if the identificatory traits to which they are indexed are intangibly inscribed in an ever-changing substrate of cellular material?

In the mid-twentieth century, Foucault and Barthes deeply questioned the limitations identity imposed on reading and interpretation. Why, for instance, need authorship play such a prominent role in limiting the possible interpretations of a text? “What difference does it make who is speaking?”5 These theories were not without their own problems. (Barthes, for instance, arguably declares the death of the author as a limiting force on the text, only to fetishize the reader as the text’s new site of imagined unity.6) Nonetheless, they succinctly capture a mid-century anti-identitarian sentiment, growing against the grain of the proliferative identification-machines.

In ’nineties identity discourse, theories of difference became particularly pronounced. Cultural theorists such as Stuart Hall radically questioned essentialist notions of cultural identity, while nonetheless acknowledging the political and discursive efficacy of how identities come to be narrated and understood. Hall and others advocated for a critical understanding of identity that emphasized “not ‘who we are’ or ‘where we came from’, so much as what we might become, how we have been represented and how that bears on how we might represent ourselves. Identities are… constituted within, not outside representation.”7

On the one hand – so I have said – myriad technical apparatuses have aimed to ever more reliably capture and verify identity. On the other hand, myriad critical texts have questioned identity’s essentialist underpinnings. But today, these lines have become blurred. The anti-identitarian mood permeates technical landscapes, too – not just theoretical ones. Fake IDs, identity theft, and other obfuscations have grown ever more complex alongside apparatuses for identification; indeed, such fakeries have both emerged in response to, and driven yet further developments in technologies for identity verification. The frontiers of identification are ever-changing; each attempt to improve technologies for verifying identity, it seems, eventually provokes the invention of new techniques for evading those verifications.

At the inherently uncertain point of contact between person and online platform, new forms of anti-identifications are practiced – invented or adapted from previous stories. In one bizarre example from 2008, a Craigslist advert posted in Monroe, Washington requested 15-20 men for a bit of well-paid maintenance work. The men were to turn up at 11:15 am in front of the Bank of America, wearing dark blue shirts, a yellow vest, safety goggles and surgical masks. As it turned out, there was no work to be had; instead, the men had been summoned to acts as decoys for a robbery – a squid-ink trail of similarity to help the thief escape. The idea, though inventive, wasn’t entirely original; it was described by police as a possible copycat of the plot in the film The Thomas Crown Affair (1999)8.

Today, the anti-identitarian mood has spread far beyond small-scale manoeuvers like this. Multiple large-scale data breaches – such as the recent Equifax breach, which compromised the data of over 145 million customers9 – have put a cloud over the veracity of millions of people’s online identities. The anti-identitarian mood becomes broad, pervasive, and generalized in data-rich, security-compromised environments. It becomes a kind of weather – a storm of mistrust that gathers and subsides on the level of infrastructures and populations.



Such are some of the complexities that the DAOWO speakers had to contend with. At the Goethe Institute, we thought through some of the ways in which identities are being newly constituted within representation – ways that might, indeed, answer to the technical and philosophical problems associated with identification. Backend developer Thor Karlsson led us through his company Authenteq’s quest to provide more reliable online identity verification. Citing the ease with which online credit card transactions can be hacked, and with which fake accounts proliferate, Karlsson described Authenteq’s improved ID verification process – a digital biometric passport, using blockchain as its technical basis. Users upload a selfie, which is then analysed to ensure that it is a live image – not a photograph of a photograph, for instance. They also upload their passport. Authenteq record their verification, and return proof of identity to users, on the BigChainDB blockchain.

A hashing algorithm ensures that users can be reliably identified, without a company having to store any personal information about them. Authenteq aims to support both identity claim verifications and KYC (Know Your Customer) implementations, allowing sites to get the information they need about their users (for instance, that they are over 18 for adults-only sites) without collecting or storing any other information about them. Given how much the spate of recent large-scale data breaches has brought the storage of personal data into question, Authenteq’s use of blockchain to circumvent the need to store personal data promises a more secure route to verification without revealing too much of personal identity.


Nonetheless, while Karlsson and Authenteq were optimistic that they can make meaningful improvements in online identification processes, other provocations focused on the potential problems associated with such attempts at identification – on the protological level, on the level of valuation, and on the level of behaviour-as-protocol. Ramon Amaro delivered an insightful critique of blockchain and the problem of protological control. There is no such thing as raw data – inputs are always inflected by social processes. Further, the blockchain protocol relies heavily on consensus (with more focus on consensus than on what, exactly, is being agreed upon) – which reflects a need to protect assets (including identity) and oust enemies that is, ultimately, a capitalist one. Given this, how can identity manoeuver within the blockchain protocol, without always already being part of a system that is based on producing inclusions and exclusions – drawing lines between those who can and cannot participate?

My own contribution focused on systemic uncertainty in the spheres of personal valuation, looking at online reputation. In a world in which online rankings and ratings pervade, it seems that there is a positivist drive to quantify online users’ reputations. Yet such apparent certainty can have unexpected effects, producing overall systemic volatility. At the forefront of what I call “reputation warfare,” strategists such as Steve Bannon invent new ways to see systemic reputational volatility as a source of value itself, producing options for the politicians they represent to capitalize on the reputational violence produced on sites like 4chan and 8chan.

While these contributions reflected on some of the critical problems associated with pinning down identity’s value, some of the artists’ contributions for the day focused on the ludic aspects of identity play. Ed Fornieles’ contribution focused on the importance of role play as a practice of assuming alternate identities. In his work, this involves thinking of identity as systemic, not individual – and considering how it might be hacked. In many of Fornieles’ works, this involves focusing attention on the relation between identity and the platforms on which they are played out. Behaviour becomes a kind of protocol; role play becomes a reflection on strands of behaviour as protocol.

My Name is Janez Janša

We ended the day with a screening and discussion of My Name is Janez Janša (2012), a film by three artists who, in 2007, collectively changed their names to Janez Janša, to match that of the current president of Slovenia. The film, an extended meditation on the erosion of the proper name as an identifier, catalogued many instances of ambiguity in proper names – from the unintended (an area of Venice in which huge numbers of families share the same last name) to the intentional (Vaginal Davis on the power of changing names). It also charted reactions to the three artists’ act of changing their name to Janez Janša. What seemed to confound people was not so much that their names had been changed, but rather that the intention of the act remained unclear. In the midst of today’s moods of identification, there are high stakes – and many clear motives – for either obscuring or attempting to pinpoint identity. Given this, the lack of clear motive for identity play seems significant; by not signifying, it holds open a space to rethink the limits of today’s moods of identification.


The DAOWO programme is devised by Ruth Catlow and Ben Vickers in collaboration with the Goethe-Institut London, and the State Machines programme. Its title is inspired by a paper written by artist, hacker and writer Rob Myers called DAOWO – Decentralised Autonomous Organisation With Others


Tokenization and its Discontents

Information wants to be free, and net art is information. Trying to make it harder to copy is like trying to make water less wet. Or perhaps like trying to give it a soul. In “Blockchain Poetics” I described “new kinds of quasi-property” created using the Blockchain as a mis-application of that technology. Ken Wark is similarly unimpressed – “My Collectible Ass“, he complains in e-flux.

The history of Conceptual Art’s dematerialization of the art object shows that the art market loves nothing more than finding ways to make the previously unsaleable into financial assets. As Wark points out, “We tend to think that what is collected is a rare object.” There’s nothing rarer than something that doesn’t actually exist. But the un-ownable and non-or-barely-existent can be represented as property by proxy objects. Financial elsewheres rather than financial futures.

Cryptographic tokens are a generalization of cryptocurrency to represent assets other than money. Such as editions of digital artworks. Wark’s criterion of rarity is reflected in the name of the most successful crypto-token collectibles – “Rare Pepes” are detournements of the “Pepe The Frog” character (previously appropriated by the alt.right) that are sold as CounterParty tokens. CounterParty is a system layered on top of Bitcoin’s blockchain that allows the creation of new tokens with varying properties (different issuance amounts, subdividable or not, locked for further issuance or not, a sub-token of another token) which can then be exchanged and transferred backed by the security of the Bitcoin blockchain. It’s an older system than Ethereum or other platforms that are now used for tokens. It has few major use cases, and Rare Pepes are one of them.

The Rare Pepe Directory.

To make a Rare Pepe card you create a CounterParty token with a reference to the image you are using in its metadata, issue as many tokens as you are going to, then lock the token so no more can be issued (making the token “rare”). Rare Pepe quantities, prices and styles vary. There are magazines and virtual galleries devoted to them. There is even a subtoken representing the original physical version of one image (with an edition size of one).

A more singular set of images are the “CryptoPunks” (seen at the top of this page), which exist as an ERC20 token (almost) on the Ethereum blockchain. The “smart contract” that administers the token contains a cryptographic hash of an image of 10,000 bitmapped characters which can be bought and sold using its functions. Like Rare Pepes, the punks have a lighthearted style (they are retro pixellated avatars) and have varying rarity (some features are unique, others appear on dozens of characters) . Unlike Rare Pepes, every punk was created at the start of the project and no more can be added. At the time of writing, punks are available to purchase for 0.12 to 1,010,101,101,110,010,011,000.01 ETH (40.35 to 339,616,193,448,241,111,336,826.06 USD).

CryptoKitties for sale.

An even more playful approach may be able to take artificially scarce digital collectibles mainstream. CryptoKitties are customized cartoon cats whose appearance is determined by a digital genome (like the old “Cabbage Patch Kids” dolls) that can be interbred to produce more of them (like William Latham’s “Mutator”). At the time of writing they are taking up 13% of the Ethereum network’s capacity, making them the single biggest user of that blockchain, and the most expensive has sold for more than 100,000USD.

Every art is relative to a culture and an economy, whatever its other properties. The ground that tradeable blockchain images are a figure against is a particular moment in the history of cryptocurrency. Trading cards and digital collectibles fit a specific cultural niche, as does their iconography and the socially performative act of dealing in them. Their price may reflect the ability of cryptocurrency early adopters (who in the case of CounterParty and its XCP currency don’t have much else to spend it on) to be more extravagant with their hodlings.” follows the tokenized image edition strategy but applies it to popular/illustration art. Again each image is available for a given price in a given edition (for example 0.084 ETH in an edition of 150). The gallery takes a cut, and it takes a cut on profits on the secondary market. It also gives a cut to the artist, simulating Droit de Suite/Artist’s Resale Right. The Resale Right is controversial – it breaks the first sale doctrine and mostly benefits the estates of dead famous artists. But I implemented it as a user-settable property in the Art Market smart contract that I wrote in 2014 as I felt it was worth experimenting with in a voluntary setting.

Monegraph came out while I was working on that project. Like Ascribe it is a serious digital art registry implemented initially using pre-smart-contract technology (NameCoin for Monegraph, Bitcoin for Ascribe). These platforms’ seriousness and phrasing as registries contrasts with the playfulness and explicit tokenizaton of more recent systems. This and the already mentioned possible impacts of the social and economic impact of the increase in value of cryptocurrencies since 2014, along with the increased mainstream awareness of cryptocurrency, may explain the difference in their adoption (or at least their place in the hype cycle).

Maecenas’ web site

In contrast, Maecenas is a tokenized investment fund for physical fine art. It operates in part like the scene in William Gibson’s “Count Zero” (1986) in which Marly, one of the protagonists, reflects on how art in the mid-21st century is bought and sold as “points” in the work of a particular artist that represent shares in the value of the “originals” which are stored unseen in a vault. To quote their web site, “investors speculate via synthetic exposure: James is a Modern Art collector who needs to finance the purchase of a new Jeff Koons sculpture worth $120k.  Instead of selling items from his collection, or getting an expensive loan, James get the required funding by listing in Maecenas 20% of one of his flagship pieces of art. Access to Maecenas is via an ERC20 token named (ART)” that Maecenas claim will improve access, transparency and fairness in the art market.

Propertization, fractionalization and financialization via proxy tokens (we cannot “own” allographic digital images, or own part of autographic paintings without dismembering them, but we can own tokens that we agree to pretend represent these things) promise to support art production using the economic accident of the value of cryptocurrency going to the moon. Quasiproperty without attempts at the costly fantasy of imposing access control via DRM is a form of, or a variation on the idea of, patronage. I feel this complex of ideas should be more useful to critics of the commodity form and capitalism than it has generally been treated as so far. If we still wish to take the opposite tack this leads us to the gift economy or the commons. Copyright is the default state for most art when it is created and is being increasingly restrictively enforced on the net. Opposing it passively or actively through alternative copyright licensing can perform a critique of this and keep space open for alternatives. These strategies needn’t exclude each other though.

If you are familiar with DAOs, you can see how a system similar to these could become a self-supporting, self-curating DAO. Plantoid is an example of a singular artwork (or family of artworks) produced and exhibited in such a way. Imagine it generalized to a gallery or a participatory art show, a DAO that lets you do art with others, a DAOWO.

These technologies can provide objects for critical exploration that evoke wider contemporary themes. They can function as tools and resources for the creation of art and its social collectivities focussing on these and other themes. Within the existing economy they can provide ways of supporting the arts (as many of the projects mentioned above claim to), which should neither be dismissed reflexively nor accepted without irony. Or they can be used to try to bootstrap a different context entirely, even if only briefly or in the imagination. The various modes of tokenization represent potential ways of making a living in, critiquing, or even transforming the artworld in an era of the continuing expansion of the sphere of private property and financialization under technocapital.

On Not Getting The Neoliberal Anti-Hero We Wanted: Blade Runner’s Play With Nostalgia

It was not the cyberpunk universe you were looking for.

Our nostalgia centres were lit up with a cut from a flying car to a full screen eyeball staring across the opening scene, synchronized on the script and musical score of its 20th century precursors’ timing. From there, audiences of the Blade Runner sequel were dropped into a pale California wasteland blanketed with conglomerate agricultural biofarms, an antithesis to cyberpunk’s damp, urban hybridity.  The green, utopic space beyond the city– only glimpsed at the end of the 1982 original theatrical release and removed entirely in the director’s cut– was where we started from in Blade Runner 2049, and (surprise) there’s nothing but the dystopia of the anthropocene to look forward to there either.

Times change.

The recently post-industrial, 20th century cyberpunk rebellion of bodily sensuality: the noir lighting, the baroque candelabras burning, the lingering fingers stroking out haunting piano music; these were relics now, hinted at, ghosts of a genre in its past moment. Even the endless rain characteristic of the cyberpunk genre was repeatedly replaced with snow in Blade Runner 2049. A borrowed soundtrack teasing the familiar bridge to a heroic death scene came without poetic dialogue or even a witness. Rogue replicants were not criminals, but escaping criminality. Even memories were no longer stolen in this world, but legally manufactured, a convention stripping the typical cybernetic plot of bioharvesting found in cyberpunk down to a more contemporary, bioengineered ethics of classed and raced co-humanity if ever there was one. No, this ethical failure was smoother, blended into liberal values and legal structures, more sanctioned somehow.

The 80s cyberlibertarian world of the white lone wolf, struggling for autonomy in a hybrid, post-globalized world of orientalist economic takeover, had passed by in the great data “black out” of 2020 apparently, and Denis Villeneuve didn’t care about your need for consistent genre romance. Sort of. Rather, the director brought the audience’s need for Blade Runner nostalgia in and out of the sequel like a tool, cuing our attention to wait for it, partially rewarding us with a sensory, semi-nostalgic moment, only to glitch before nostalgic completion. Again and again,  it was invitation and estrangement from our own expectations. Blade Runner 2049 was a highly self-aware remix of its own postmodern references and refusals in a predetermined world.

Shatter no. 2 (1986): Cyberlibertarian comic in which a man of hybrid white ethnicity in a post-Fordist dystopia uncritically takes mercenary work to buy CocaCola on a proto-eBay channel.

Perhaps a hybridity across two cyberpunks of historical time and cultural change was apropos. Ridley Scott’s genre critique of the corrupt corporation had evolved since its 20th century take in the Alien franchise, expanding to consciously address our own implication in the techno-dystopian social narrative. It turns out that we are no longer universally laboring blue collar victims in the secretive horrors of impending biopolitical technocracy. Rather, we are eager and satiated participants in its isolating ubiquity; high tech consumers implicated in all of the attendant social stratification, inequality, and suffering that its warm glow of access masks and accelerates, from facilitated gentrification and casualized labor, to the toxic, extra-legal wastelands of dead electronics processing.

Electronics recycling village in Guiyu, China.

Disruptive innovation has predominantly benefitted the 21th century, western, science fiction audience. Our classic cyberpunk desire for the vindication of the social outlier– the androgynous Sigourney Weaver in a corporate-threatened future of full equality and bodily autonomy, or the replicant who can reclaim a subjectivity beyond his or her social paradigms and slave programming– has since been turned on its anti-establishment head. Scott’s film Covenant saw this come to fruition when the Menippean Anti-hero, Bakhtin’s rebellious, paradigm-questioning literary figure cloaked in the absurd eloquence of language, is fledged into a full sociopath. We saw this in the philosophical and intellectual character of David and his calculated experiments to replace the evolutionarily inferior human species. If Menippean satire is “a genre for serious people who see serious trouble” (Howard Weinbrot), than what is this?

By Covenant, our anti-hero no longer presented the humanistic redemption narrative of the Menippean Nexus 6 leader, Roy Batty, in the original Blade Runner. Instead, Covenant gave its inverse: a regressed society being shown the mainstream values it has come to love and endorse in a world of neoliberal anti-establishment leadership. So much for the underground resistance crouching in the street garbage. The 21st century universe of cyberpunk has been one of well-mannered disruptive innovators of the species, philosophically visionary proponents of transformative wealth models built on slave bodies, and the “technê-Zen” veneered (R. John Williams) institutionalization and naturalization of technological sociopathy. Here is a social darwinist instrumentalism for our post-human age of market-driven measures of social success and impending climate change. In this universe, androids can be humanist while humans can be androids in an inhuman system, conveying either ‘progress’ by any means necessary or a losing sense of civilizational duty. Whose side, Covenant asked of us, before its devastatingly feel-bad ending, were you hoping would win anyway?

David, it turns out, was the only anti-hero we deserved now.

“Tears in the Rain” scene from Blade Runner 2019

Denis Villeneuve’s sequel fits surprisingly in this updated cyberpunk universe. Like Walter in Covenant, the replicant hero who becomes Joe in Blade Runner 2049 (in contrast to Roy Batty) clearly lacks the eloquent language and especially satire of the subversive, Menippean Anti-hero character. Surprisingly, we find his strain of articulate stream-of-conscious in the tech empire guru played by Jared Leto, drained of all the feeling and trickster-like ability of Roy Batty. Joe, however (like Walter), is simple and humble in his speech, seemingly able to feel but dying suggestively in silence off screen. Robbed of the poetic dialogue expected of the death scene, only a soundtrack bite nostalgic of Roy Batty’s final scene signals a death of redemption for Joe in Blade Runner 2049. Yet the unsentimentally raw, blank slate of Joe’s expression asks of his audience: What do we see through his eyes? What language could possibly be used here to convey the gravity of a moment when power so regularly denies and manipulates the language of our experiences? In this silence, we are perhaps left to only wonder what we would be feeling.

What if it had ended differently? Would Roy Batty’s eloquent speech achieve the same humanizing disjuncture today, or does it really belong now to Niander Wallace, our tech monopoly visionary of the neoliberal age, emptied of any contradiction with the smooth flow of progress rhetoric and sociopathic public morality? Niander Wallace as foil who cannot stop talking makes Joe’s uncharacteristic silence all the more uncanny. According to Jonathan Auerbach, the uncanny involves a “trespassing or boundary crossing, where inside and outside grow confused… reveal(ing) dark secrets hidden within.” Auerbach is talking about film noir here– a highly unsettling sensory genre metabolized into the late Cold War aesthetics of the Blade Runner world. But perhaps we can relate this psychic role of the filmic uncanny to other hybridities explored through expressionist media, where the formal manipulations of sight and sound once conveyed the uneasy clashing of two worlds affectively.

Is Villeneuve’s silent denial of a hero’s dialogue in a death scene, for a Blade Runner audience, purposely estranging? Does it achieve the same, disorienting “uncanny bodies” (Robert Spadoni) that silent film audiences, unaccustomed to sound in their movies, reported with the introduction of Talkies? Film scholar Shane Denson describes how post-Talkie movies of the Thirties like Frankenstein (1931), were created in a period of transition and between the old and new ontologies of silent and sound film media. Denson argues that such films, working after the initial novelty of Talkie exposition wore off, played affectively with the new hybridity of films formalist storytelling qualities. In doing so, these films drew attention to our participation in media: “sight and sound conspire(d)…to encourage the viewer’s medium sensitivity, to coalesce with the perception of a constructed monster.” And what is a sequel, after all, if not a constructed monster of narrative to become conscious of?

Scene from Blade Runner 2019


We live in a time of the seductive post-human technologization and normalization of very inhuman institutions, public policies, and person-like entities whose social impacts are all too often screened over with ‘alternative’ narratives of language. Glitches in this flow of mainstream mediated ways of knowing can be more than anti-nostalgic; they can be disruption to the alt-fact hyperreality in the neoliberal 21st century. Are uncanny bodies of the sensorily unexpected (or, even, dissected) what we have left to successfully slow down and stutter our neoliberal ubiquity for hearing chasm-filling speech? Can such estrangements allow us the conscious relationality to once again actually hear and see how we are hearing and seeing each other?

Scene from Blade Runner 2019

It is convenient to note here that the technological imaginary of the first Blade Runner movie refused ubiquitous surveillance. Blade Runner 2019 even refused a conception of the personal communication device so often credited with fracturing collective sociality in both sci-fi and reality. Decker, for example, calls Rachel from a public videophone in a bar. Whether human or replicant, technological worlding of the  original Blade Runner insists on the communications scale of face-to-face human relationality. By the end of Blade Runner 2049 this same scale of technological imaginary in the original film returns. It is the death of one body, the replicant called “Luv”, that seems to end the limitless reach of panopticon technology that helps advance the plot.

Some kinds of love can destroy. Scene from Blade Runner 2049

This act leaves the future of Blade Runner’s Earth yet again to the relations between two, individual physical bodies. With the 1% most likely afloat in the outer world colonies, we might assume this means that it’s up to Us to cross the interface of hyberbaric differences. At a time when love has become perverted with neoliberal logic– instrumental, utilitarian, stripped of its greater sense of equality or duty– it seems that Villeneuve graciously gives us an answer here, if not a fantasy to hold on to.  Perhaps one consistency in the Blade Runner franchise is the argument, like that of Junot Diaz on neocolonial oppression (as if it ever ended) and the uptick of white supremacist domestic terrorism, that it is ultimately intimacy with the Other and rejection of the glorified “lone wolf” mentality that must be revolutionary: “Vulnerability is the precondition to contact.” What if being in our present moment requires the vulnerability of silence?


Nostalgia has come unstuck in time. In Ghosts of My Life, the late Mark Fisher wrote extensively of the threat of nostalgia in postmodern cultural production. Building on theorists Frederic Jameson and Bifo Berardi to explain the bending of new technologies to recycle comfortable and profitable cultural forms for capitalism, Fisher explains how “…the nostalgia mode subordinated technology to the task of refurbishing the old”, not of specific past styles, or periods, but forms of never-fully-present time asynchronicity. Consider it like another outdated, self-reproducing model, ever expanding all around you to stay relevant. Perhaps you can finally see its now, like a loose eye, engineered, removed from its familiar socket.

Scene from Blade Runner 2019

Transgressive fiction has this way of making our boundaries visible in the crossing. The reader may resist its dehumanization, suddenly queasy. Barthes once wrote about the surrealist Georges Bataille’s Story of the Eye, a modernist novel from the early mid-20th century which indeed involves a plucked eye and its “metaphorical journey” across other eye-like images. An object, he wrote, “can pass from hand to hand… or alternatively it can pass from image to image, in which case its story is that of a migration, the cycle of the avatars it passes through, far removed from its original being, down the path of a particular imagination that distorts but never drops it” (his emphasis). Barthes felt The Story of the Eye was less a novel and more like poetry. Through its avatars and crossing of sensory metaphors, the eye simultaneously “varies and endures.” Consider the following example of crossing sensory metaphors from the Blade Runner sequel: eyes, cells, tears, rain, leaking, bleeding, blinking, seizing, splashing, drowning, watching, “cells”. And what if this thing we now strangely see so differently is neither naturally born nor autonomous, but a constructed thing?

How eerie.

Neil Punches Pixels, video signal art by Peer Bode (1980)

Eerie like the absence of “future shock” in the futuristic. According to Fisher, nostalgia mode production is an aspect of the “cultural logic of late capitalism” that “…disguise(s) the disappearance of the future” and prevents any real possibility of innovative “rupture”. Nostalgia in our entertainment helps stabilize the “cultural deficits” created under globalization, soothing the simultaneous “exhaustion and overstimulation” of instantaneous and transactional relations we can’t seem to deal with. It fills a high-speed chasm of emotion, truth, and meaning. It denies us the “uncanny” recognition of our temporal futurelessness, left teetering on neoliberalism’s precarity of resources “despite all its rhetoric of novelty and innovation…”

Let’s just be honest here: by the time the Coke commercial hologram showed up in Blade Runner 2049, it was a joke on our desire for even nostalgic product placements.

Nothing changes.

The Las Vegas Dystopia scene, Blade Runner 2049

Dipping into the media art world at this borderland, theorist and filmmaker Hito Steyerl writes in “A Thing Like You and Me” about the video that David Bowie put out in 1977 for “Heroes”:

He sings about a new brand of hero, just in time for the neoliberal revolution. The hero is dead—long live the hero! Yet Bowie’s hero is no longer a subject, but an object: a thing, an image, a splendid fetish (…) the clip shows Bowie singing to himself from three simultaneous angles, with layering techniques tripling his image; not only has Bowie’s hero been cloned, he has above all become an image that can be reproduced, multiplied, and copied, a riff that travels effortlessly through commercials for almost anything, a fetish that packages Bowie’s glamorous and unfazed postgender look as product. Bowie’s hero is no longer a larger-than life human being… but a shiny package endowed with posthuman beauty: an image and nothing but an image.

What are we to do when no degree of protest or declaration can make an exploited object be seen as a subject? Where is one to find anti-heroism in all of this? Let us be objects of severe agency then. Models that are perhaps transferrable, but unobtainable. One of a kind and replaceable. Constructed yet autonomous.

A larger-than-life commercial featuring a black-eyed avatar of Joi’s character, Blade Runner 2049

Perhaps then we can only view these things in suspension: the need and refusal of nostalgia as liberating human process, the uncanny increments of our cultural evolution to product and media-focused estrangement, the will to see one’s own familiar pixels blown wide open. “Digital information is … characterised by transformation, degradation, circulation,” explains Hito Steyerl in an interview in Rhizome, “but also by its surprising ability to mutate and produce unpredictable results. The glitch, the bruise of the image or sound testifies to its being worked with and working; being passed on and circulated, being matter in action.” Futureless. As futureless as staring into a present ruin, expansive but without destination, the destination without purpose.

You are here. Scene from Blade Runner 2049

Apropos, then, how our old and new heroes meet in that ruined casino scene, outcasts of white difference (by the future racialization of the synthetic) in an atemporal Las Vegas, framed by primordial Seven Wonder monuments to the our foundational schisms of misogyny (yes I’m also talking about me).

In this incarnated ruin of our stubbornness for cultural mythologies, I was struck by the brilliance of the fight scene, the director literally exploding our pixel expectations of 20th century nostalgia as soon as Harrison Ford makes his long-awaited appearance. The sonic build-up of Decker’s familiar piano in the distance was dissolved by the strange sound of his disembodied voice un-cueing an upcoming appearance in the scene, his visual reveal in that moment of our auditory let down, confusing: Desire misfiring. The ensuing cyberpunk clash-as-fight-scene of 20th century romantic and 21st century post-romantic dystopic characters corresponds to the casino’s hologram interface of an imagined, mid 21st century entertainment technology; all of the expected glamour and nostalgia is allowed to barely seduce us before sputtering and malfunctioning as filmic metascene. Within the plot, these post-apocalyptic hollywood holograms are also a sign of the future sentience to come in the character of Joe’s AI wife, Joi, and a warning that all technology rebels and mutates from initial human intentions, no matter how superficial the design intentions.

My interpretation of this violent casino stage scene in light of a more recent American mass shooting of an ever-expanding, historically singular, and self-containing statistic of “largest ever” is not lost on me. Neither is the choice of mid 20th century entertainers like Elvis and Monroe who notoriously performed like automatons with post-human qualities, their movements in time-space of perfect bodies turning on the master clockwork of a still-industrializing cultural machine before blowing apart, fragmenting. Their avatars echo of consumer-creator bodies in our postindustrial world of 2.0, gig labor, automated economic transactions feigning meritocracy, and a model of precarity demanding the inhuman perfection of individual responsibility for every movement which can shudder, glitch, and explode on other people all too frequently.

This failure is that of speculated, plotted, rationalized, and technologized courses whose error cannot be properly imagined, only realized and refused in the ruins of a short-sighted economic-cultural imaginary. Our looking back on dystopia hints at our present expectations only.


Comparing Maillardet’s automaton at The Franklin Institute (1810) with David Bowie’s automaton in the music video for Lazarus (2016)

“It’s difficult for someone of my generation to break free of the intellectual automatism of the dialectical happy ending”, writes Bifo Berardi about irreversability. He compares this “taboo” concept to the “silent” apocalypses of our endless growth mentality, like Fukushima, corporate disaster unaccountability, socialized scarcity adjustments, and our silence on fellow human suffering. His book, The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance, speculates a “process of subjectivization” for the return of solidarity to a “social body”. This is the social body being culturally reprogrammed away under our collectively isolated movements of relentless market-driven consumption and precarity (individualist and systemic, like the fascist choreography of Kracauer’s Mass Ornament, or the Las Vegas showgirl spectacle). We might consider these grinding automaton gears of consumption and precarity the logics of late-terminal capitalism for clarity, it’s refusal a glitch in our clockwork performance. What is one to do for a postmodern exit other than to shudder, to write off the page? Ultimately, Berardi’s book leaves us more with a hope for our relational redemption from neoliberal culture through “sensibility” than it does with answers.

Blade Runner 2049 may not have been the sequel people wanted, but its confrontations with its own expectations provided a little of the things we need: a vision of the finite and anthropocene, a postmodern exit to the endless technologized avatars of getting what we think we want, our profound silence of the awful price. The film’s self-aware, nostalgic ruin leaves us with a little less of the typical sequel’s fourth wall, and an identification with its lonely bodies, caught in action between clockwork cultural predictability and its refusal. These bodies may or may not have the capacity for real love, but they are vulnerable at least to a larger sense of duty that Humanism, in all its universalizing failures, really needs. In this hybrid space of ontological awareness of the facets of knowing, experience and process, Blade Runner 2049’s success was inbetween all the things it could never definitively be. We too might realize that ‘doomed to fail’ may only be our insistence on choosing from a predetermined relational binary.

A distant song floats into the scene.
…“Though nothing, nothing will keep us together…”

When I saw Blade Runner 2049, in was at one of the remaining four hundred or so drive-in movie theaters left in the United States. I went back in memory to my kindling college interest in what I study and consider Avantpop, surveying the changes, considering its meaning and meaningless in my social development as a scholar: working class, woman, white, heterosexual; accepted and refused and abused entrances. The sequel came less than thirty years later in the revolution of a world for me, but I travelled farther to get there, out to a dark semi-rural drive-in beyond the city, and a memory of popping in a VHS tape almost 20 years ago simultaneously. I time-traveled mass media ontologies. I posted an instagram picture. It was semi-romantic nostalgia for me. But I still see that there is only now to change what we’re doing. And it is terrifying.

It’s quite an ending, to just die in silence, isn’t it?

But the fourth wall was always part of this, you know.


Works Cited:

Auerbach, Jonathan. Dark borders: Film noir and American Citizenship. Durham, NC:
Duke University Press, 2011.

Barthes, Roland. Critical Essays. City: Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1972.

Berardi, Franco “Bifo”. The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance. Los Angeles, CA: semiotext(e), 2012

Denson, Shane “Sight and Sound Conspire: Monstrous Audio-Vision in James Whale’s Frankenstein.” [in]Transition Journal of Videographic Film & Moving Image Studies, 2.4 (2016).

Díaz, Junot. “Radical Hope is Our Best Weapon.” On Being, Sept. 14 (2017).

Fisher, Mark. Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology, and Lost Futures. Laurel House, UK: Zero Books, 2014.

Gartel, Lawrence. “Interview with Peer Bode, Featured Artist.” 10TEN, no. 18 (2017) : 51-63.

Kristeva, Julia. The Kristeva Reader. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1986.

Rourke, Daniel. “Artifacts: A Conversation Between Hito Steyerl and Daniel Rourke.” Rhizome, March 28 (2013).

Gillis, Peter and Mike Saenz. Shatter (First Comics) no. 2, February, 1986.

Steyerl, Hito. “A Thing Like You and Me.” e-flux journal, no. 15, April (2010).

Weinbrot, Howard R. Menippean Satire Reconsidered. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 2005.

Williams, R. John. The Buddha in the Machine: Art, Technology, and the Meeting of East and West. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2014.

Multimedia Referenced:

Alien, movie, directed by Ridley Scott (1979).

Alien: Covenant, movie, directed by Ridley Scott (2017).

Bowie, David. Lazarus, music video, directed by Johan Renck (2016).

Bowie, David. Heroes, promotional video, directed by Stanley Dorfman (1977).

Blade Runner 2019,  movie, directed by Ridley Scott (1982).

Blade Runner 2049,  movie, directed by Denis Villeneuve (2017).

5 meditations on the work of Karin Rudolph

This is the third of three pieces on people who are posting work to the photography sharing site Flickr10.

In this final article I look at the work of Karin Rudolph1. Rudolph is a Belgian photographer, currently living in Athens, where she works as a wedding and event photographer and raises two teenage sons. In addition to her work for pay she makes an ongoing series of ‘personal’ images which she regularly posts to the photo sharing site Flickr.



I ask her to send me

I ask her to send me some images from a wedding job and she does.

It is a job she is clearly good at—everything is beautifully shot, nicely framed, sharply in focus (when sharp focus might be thought necessary), but there is that extra something that comes with a good portrait photographer, which I can only describe as fellow feeling. A fellow feeling which elicits transparency and a willingness to risk vulnerability from the subject. I’ve never met Rudolph but it’s clear that her personality, her way of being, is a player here.

There’s also a sharp curiosity at work—a hunger for the way the world looks and with Rudolph this seems to become attached to particular objects, creatures (some human, some not) and roles. There was a dog at the wedding in the images she sent me. The wedding took place outdoors and the clearly much loved animal figures in a number of the shots. It’s as if at one point R becomes fascinated by it and we get shots where the all humans are cropped (in the shooting; she doesn’t crop after the fact) down to the waist and the dog becomes central (although a small child has a supporting role here too since he necessarily evades the crop/frame wholesale). We get a dog narrative.  Then a bouquet catches her eye and we get a bouquet narrative, the wedding filtered through a non-human being or an object.  Motion—a sense of the moment before and the moment after being necessary, if hidden, components of this still image—is a key underpinning of so many of these images, particularly in relation to these micro-narratives.



In a photographer less manifestly gripped by the facts of our fragile human being and ways in the world one might call some of her approaches formalist. It is certainly true that rhyme, echo, geometry, continuities and disruptions of line, shape and colour play a highly significant role in the structuring of her images but one of the driving forces of R’s work is that it constantly moves to dissolve any artificial divide between content and form. Yes, her eyes seek pattern; yes, this or that organising device might order an image but this never obscures our awareness of the facts, feelings and relationships portrayed or implicit there. Also—we humans are formalists, aren’t we? We’re pattern seekers. We play.  Were you  never fascinated as a child by mirrors, by the world turned upside down by hanging from your legs or by the cropping  or heightening, or focus) achieved by looking through the cracks in your fingers? Of course you were. As we grow we perceive the whole world through a complex dialectic of what is presented to our senses on the one hand and our burgeoning sorting and structuring  principles on the other. We are of necessity creatures of content and form together and one surmises that this is what makes us creatures of art too.



I’d been writing

I’d been writing and thinking about this piece for a few months, on and off, and I’d got to a second or third draft when it hit me with a thud, a jolt, that hardly any of the recent images have titles.

The fact had just sailed under my radar, curiously, since I’ve argued and will again, that insofar as we can talk about meaning in a photo (or any visual artwork) this possibility lies in a network of references and comparisons which ineluctably involves talk, writing or both. Language.  Further, that visual art is best seen as something humans do (emphasis on both words) than as the usual set of isolable ‘in and of themselves’ objects (which isolation is a fiction, at best an analytical convenience). And then it struck me ( I was being struck a lot that day) that there is something about these images  that fights back against language—they’re often cross genre and resist  categorisation and there’s a sense in which the easiest approach to what’s in them is simply to list it, and finally to say that this image had these things in it under this kind of light from that angle but, of course, this is far from satisfactory and at root there is something far transcending taxonomy or description going on. But –dammit! –I can’t help feeling it is as if the images (placed as they are in the sequence formed by Flickr) are calling out, hailing each other. I don’t know why, but forced rhubarb, a most unlikely image, is the one which springs to mind and persists, as if the absence of the immediately adjacent language of a title somehow forces the set of glorious but hitherto mute  images to invent speech.



Anyone who has ever taken

Anyone who has ever taken an un-posed image of a human being on a fast shutter speed will be cautious about ascribing emotions or characteristics to the subject on the basis of what is revealed. As in so many other ways, the very small, the very distant or unreachable, animal locomotion, the photograph reveals things beyond our normal ability to see or grasp them. One of these things is the curious plasticity of the human expression and how in our interactions we read this in sequence, in time, together with a host of other clues, aural and visual, to make sense of what is going on, to try to understand both what a person is doing and to surmise what they might be feeling . (Of course the opposite of this, the posed image, brings its own problems too.)

When we think hard and soberly we cannot but be convinced that the photograph alone, an impossibly small fragment of time, does not allow us enough evidence, that it is somehow unanchored in the world.

And yet, the desire to draw conclusions, to make comment, is certainly strong in us and each photographic image of a person, especially the striking and affecting ones, comes with a very strong  sense that we are able to do so.

What can we actually say about the still photographic portrait, both in general and in particular cases?

One thing we might say is that the single image’s apparently complete account of a human being, based upon a fleeting expression (and perhaps the fleeting expressions in response of others and maybe also the presence of contextualising objects or other clues) suggests at best, a class of possibilities. This single image evokes a range of other possible images and moments in the world at least one of which must correspond to our strong intuitions about it. So even if we were able to establish the facts of the matter in this particular case and it made a lie of our emotional response , nevertheless that response represents a truth and somewhere, perhaps quite often, in the world, situations occur, have occurred, will occur, which correspond to this truth.

And it seems to me that it is this instinct for general human truth, allied to the particularity of light, line, composition, of other things depicted,  which manifests in the eye-and-heart-catching-ness of the resulting final image.

A strong way of putting it would be that any portrait is just as much a work of fiction as a novel but that as we would not wish to deny something called ‘truth’ in the novel ( you might—I see no point to the thing otherwise)  in the portrait we work our way back to truth.

And at least for me it is the photographer’s—and here, now ‘the photographer’s’ means R’s—capacity for empathy, for narrative, for understanding of the world and the wonder and the oddness of its inhabitants that makes her such a good portraitist (and let’s not forget, too, simply having done the thing a lot —this is often underrated nowadays.)

Do I know whether the Orthodox priest at the wedding table was a kind man? No. I don’t. I cannot. Is kindness manifest in the photo, is the possibility of kindness in the world reasonably asserted in it? Do I know more about kindness thereby? Absolutely.



There’s a black and white image

There’s a black and white image, taken, I think, at the place where her teenage sons practice their footballing skills which feels like a short story or perhaps a collection of short stories, each cued by the various human presences which form at one and the same time a large (in how they capture our attention) and a small (in how much actual area of the image they occupy) part of the entire image.

It also has  a most clearly defined geometry—three strips, the topmost being the practice field itself, the middle appearing to be a road like depression running between the photographer and this field and the lowest a pavement of some sort on the other side of that ‘road’. The almost bizarrely long evening shadows of R and a companion (and the horizontal distance between shadows is nicely ambiguous on the exact relationship between those shadowed) stretch forward into the image. The vertical grid adjacent to them, with a gap in the centre  picked out in shadow too, suggests they are standing at a pedestrian gate to the place. I imagine the figure at the viewer’s right is R as the arms appear to be raised in a photo taking action.

(The image thumbs its nose at genre—it is oblique self-portrait, landscape, social history, portrait and exploration of geometry and structure all at the same time.)

Shadows aside, the figures which catch my eye (what about you, so much to choose from or are you constrained in a similar way to me by something in the way the image is structured?) are the short stocky man in motion, walking away from us at the image’s far right top strip foreground.  There’s a delicious swagger and confident openness about him.

Has he passed through the gate where R stands?  Did he greet her?

The second key (perhaps because nearest?) figure is the young man, top strip, viewer’s far left, again in movement, this time almost certainly certainly sports related. Is he pursuing a stray ball? Running to greet a friend? Engaged in some sort of running warm up/exercise? As we strain to see, our relationship to the image’s scale shifts and we begin to realise just how many other figures he opens up to us—there are at least six either standing or seated in those little sheds at the field’s side between him and the left edge of the nearest goal net—each an enigma of a small but definite kind—and when we move rightwards from them we realise  (and we have to move closer in, look differently, at the image to see this) just how many people there are in some sort of action here. As we move out again we are stuck by the contrast between the contemplative calm of the giant shadows and the anthill busyness of the young men. And here’s another thing. This is such a male photo. (With the exception of the photographer and I think it’s only because I know she is female that I read her as such. Then even as I write this I notice the slight head-cocked-to-one-side quality of aficionado-like attention in the head of the left shadow—and why do I think that might clue maleness? What does that say about me?)  Oh! Layers and layers of fact, of presence, of things to enumerate and puzzle over. So much! And this before we take the thing as a totality—geometry, inhabitants, shadows, activity, motivation, time of day, distant trees,  weeds and barren ground, a sky whose colour we can only guess from the fact we know there is evening sun. And that totality is the hardest thing to compass in any way other than an intake of breath or shiver down the spine. Enumerating the contents helps (although it’s not essential to the immediate affective apprehension of the whole—that just happens) but it’s the inexplicable (not a value judgement—literally inexplicable—simply, ‘This is what R did’) decision to frame those contents in that way—the bit of the process which defies words—that makes this and so many other pieces by her so powerful.



A ravenous eye.

She has a ravenous eye, constantly tracking the scene in front of her and hungry for detail. This hunger does not distinguish between content and form. Whatever is human, whatever stirs affect or curiosity—whether pattern, rhyme or echo, or ethics, or suggested human warmth or frailty, this is swallowed up and processed by heart and mind in turn

The resulting images bear the strong feel of certain, almost objective, structuring principles—that following of object or creature within a scene, the use of rhyme and echo. Two further categories are geometry and colour (and nothing here is pure, there are no essences, sometimes blocks of colour impose an extra, parallel geometry upon a scene whose first order sense—whether it be human beings in action or traces of interpretable human activity; buildings, signs, the street —apparently lies elsewhere.) The key thing about all these structuring principles is that they are found, excavated, discovered, seen—not made. They happen in parallel with, arise out of the actions and feelings of, human beings in this world, the only one we have.

Because she is someone who has lived, fully, in that world, for a fair time, because her hunger extends beyond the visual (she always has a book on the go and the range of these is impressive), because she has a number of languages and is at home in at least three cultures, she makes images which are connected and re-connected by hundreds of threads to things we ourselves might have read and thought or experienced and talked about. Further, it is impossible to imagine that the fact she is a woman living in a country not of her birth, where she has learned a different script, different ways of talking and being, where she works in part as an image maker for hire and constantly both connects and holds separate that work for pay from own ‘own’ work, at the same time as raising children by herself, that these facts are not also somehow foundational.

For a long time I have struggled with how to attach the word meaning to image. It is too easily and glibly used. An image never ‘means’ a single thing (unless it is the poorest of images and even then the human capacity for/delight in ambiguity sets to work to disrupt this) What is evident in Rudolph’s work is networks of  evoked meaning, memories, feelings.

Her way of being in the world, this following her eye and nose, means that there is a kind of metonymy purged of any attempt at system—here is a dog or child or chair or window. Here are the things which necessarily were near it at a moment in time and this is how they were disposed. There was reason and there was randomness. Parts of the disposition were beautiful. (What do I mean by beautiful? They move me, they fill me with a joy that cannot be reduced to words though it perhaps can be limned by various combinations of words, combinations potentially infinite which always nearly but not completely fail.) Parts of the disposition were stark or threatening or at least worrisome. The bringing together of all these parts—worry, beauty, pattern, action—into an image framed, bounded, lit, by the laws of the heart and the laws of the intellect now pulling one way, now the other. The work about the world is itself part of the world. We are not alone. No person is an island. We can read each other’s thoughts. We can feel each other’s feelings.

The words and the image and human heart and human history dance ever outwards and outwards. What does an artist do but always start to write the whole history of humanity in the world?

We spun a dream last night by Francesca da Rimini

We had a dream last night, we had the same dream’2

I’m looking for a new love, a mouth that promises . . .

once upon a time . . .

or . . .

in the beginning . . .

the islands in the net were fewer, but people and platforms enough
for telepathy far-sight spooky entanglement
seduction of, and over, command line interfaces

it felt lawless
and moreish
wandering into the maw of the feast

in the realm of the Puppet Mistress, 1995

speech acts, sex acts, strange pacts
squirreled away in buffer logs and pasted Pine trails
weaving 1001 nights of Puppet Mistress tales
never on the down-low
was this most splendid DIWO

permission granted,
always, all ways
read write execute
reeds rites hexecutes

I was Alice clasping the little bottle labeled ‘DRINK ME’
becoming-Sufi, heady with some love-like like love emotions
juiced up jouissance
psychosomatic investigations

psi psi psi
ψ ψ ψ

seeking the difference/s
if any
between a suspected false binary
Virtual — Real — Life

different ants
worker queens snorting lines of flight

‘IRL’ (‘in real life’) prefaced conversations
whereas no-one said ‘IVL’
VL was the norm
so no need for a distinguishing preposition
whereas you needed to go somewhere, in, purposefully,
to get (back) to real life


Back to life, back to reality
Back to the here and now yeah
. . .
Back to life, back to the present time,
Back from a fantasy
Soul II Soul 1989


I ask Monstrous_Gorgeous (aka t0xic_honey @Lambda) to trawl through my stash of Moologs and MOOmails from my Lambda life, to search for signs of digital affliction. t0x’s forensic gaze (who eirself had been a keen Lambda queercoder back in the day) might be illuminating. GashGirl and her morphs(GenderFuckMeBaby, Madame_de_Clairwill, doll yoko, Rent_Boy, et al) had run amok and amongst simultaneous games, switching genders, personae and communicative registers as easily as children playing ‘let’s pretend‘. The best game was that between Puppet Mistress and her Puppet (aka YourPuppet). Today the language seems quaint, The Difference Engine meets The Pearl, steamy stream punk. All bonnets, bronze and tiny buttons.


It’s a sky-blue sky.
Satellites are out tonight.
Let X=X.
Laurie Anderson 1982


does X=X?
or VL = zero?
with RL the one of ones, the one and all,
the only one (of all possible lives)

I think not!

t0x phones me, recounting episodes that I cannot recall, but which are so in-character I have for sure they happened. Like when I punished My Puppet severely for daring to speak with t0x about her in-MOO peep show. Now we can laugh about it, now that the field lies fallow, but at the time I was furious. Living at (on? in?) LambdaMOO did not diminish affect or emotion, but rather it intensified thought, sensation, desire, need.

can we call this addiction?
or obsession?
compulsion maybe?

I chatted this week with Jon Marshall, my anthropologist friend and author of Living on Cybermind (an ethnography of a mailing list), about how it felt more like a habit than an addiction. He talks about personally accumulated habits and socially accumulated habits. Humans are constructed of habits, including the habits that you build up around internet use. We recall the ‘Rape in Cyberspace‘ event at LambdaMOO; ‘that story becomes a myth that guides behaviour’, suggests Jon. My habit would not have led to such intense encounters, if all of us lot had not been sharing a gravitational pull to the glimmering galaxies of spiralspace. My twin talks about habit lying at the junction of nature and nurture, opening up another line for future investigation. Never enough time. Instead I loaf around on Netflix with Terrace House: Boys & Girls in the City.

for me the habit of MOO (Mu) was quickly formed,
and devastating to desert
Ripping through a damaged heart
in the best of daze
circa 1992 93 94 95 96
I didn’t leave home
a charming house with a white peach tree, goblin hut
and a dial-up 14,400 modem usurping landline’s phone functionality

for years I burrowed in through a borrowed log-in
J (aka connie_spiros @Lambda) pounds on front door to kick me off
later I jumped onto a free account offered by community provider apana
through its tiny sibling sysx (thank you Scott and Jason)
part of a tribe meshwork of cool sysops animating .net
motivated by the conviction of net access for all
excess for real

S (aka Quark @Lambda) told me how depressing it was to leave home at 7.30am seeing me already jacked in, and to find me still in pajamas at dinner time, a sure sign that I hadn’t stepped away from the computer all day.

frequently he’d say ‘What’s wrong with this picture?’
5 words yanking me from my fugue
to discover myself pretzeled around the machine
in a position so unnatural it had become natural
to a life lived more and more in a VL that had become my RL

there was a vastness to the generative affective experiences
it felt unstoppable
on par with the most exhilarating love affairs
continual platform jumping
(don’t mind the gaps)
with unseen but deeply imagined companions
haunting me from nautical twilight to nautical twilight

netmonster, 2005

The only platform that came close to the seductiveness of Lambda was Netmonster, a network visualisation engine built by artist coder tinkerer Harwood (aka Graham Harwood). I was fascinated by the code and what it could do. And I adored the constant communication with my bruvv, the one who calls me ‘witch sister’. We hung around on the server, chatting white text on black screen. I made him a self-executing poem in Perl, my one and only attempt to learn some rudiments of that language. Netmonster could be a machine for collaborative writing, for prophesy, a tool for poking around in the machinations of power and capital. I imagined its transformative potential on a magical level, casting silver spanners into the bellyworks of the Beast. As a user I became tangled in search strings questing for the grail of understanding. Without knowing what I was asking, I pushed Harwood to push the code, Perl, to do things it wasn’t designed to do. The machine groaned under the weight of requests, and eventually its interactive functionality was turned off (brutal!), leaving just a beautiful hyperlayered carapace online. The emptiness I felt when the living essence of the project was no longer was comparable to the hole of grief when a lover says it’s over. The spirit of Netmonster had left forever. I was alone again.

clever little tailor, 2017

There’s a few of us chatting around a table in Clever Little Tailor, an affordable bar if you stop after one drink. Around the table S2 (artist/student, early 20s), A (poet/singer/student maybe just grazing 25), and a couple of ancient cyberwitches. We speak about imbuing inanimate objects, a child’s wooden horse, a Persian rug, with magical powers, to speak, to fly. The human tendency to want to create life in things, including things and wings of internet, and this predisposition in turn enlivens and expands us. The topic turns to matters of the heart, and native/natal platforms. Those communicative modes that either we were born into or grew into, the sticky tongue finger techs that we associate with our netted emotional and social lives. We talked about coding and not coding, about the need to live online, and the impulse to desert it. Instant Messaging is for S2 what Internet Relay Chat was for us. We spell out the spell of Command Line Interface in a condensed version of how we uploaded ourselves to the song of the modem, waiting up all night to be able to play, existing betwixt and between multiple time zones. We struggle to find the right words (because the material of this stuff is made of words but is so not about words really) to evoke the deliciousness of what was a relatively uncolonised uncommodified unregulated ineffable space. Even if we hexen rarely use the word ourselves, the neologism (and who could forget Neo!) cyberspace, continues to signify the consensual hallucination of jacking in to the zone. Maybe now it’s more mall than sprawl for us who experienced something more unbounded, but for the next gens the intensities, the desires are equivalent.


forever doll
becoming witch
she opens her mouth
and swallows the world
she opens her mouth
and swallows your word
dissolving like spun sugar
laced with saffron threads
hexe hexe hexe
tiva! tiva! tiva!
naughty naughty naughty
all for naught
and nought for one
zero and one
zeno and won
one on one on one
on and on and on . . .


Thank you to old and new friends whose ideas have nourished this text: Virginia Barratt, Alison Coppe, Linda Dement, Teri Hoskin, Jon Marshall, Stuart Maxted, John Tonkin. Big thanks to (bruvv) Graham Harwood for inviting me to play and live inside Netmonster in 2005.

Francesca da Rimini (aka doll yoko, GashGirl, liquid_nation, Fury) is an interdisciplinary artist, poet and essayist. She revels in collaborative projects, joining companions in generating slow art, strange beats and new personae. As co-founder of cyberfeminist group VNS Matrix she contributed to international critiques of gender and technology. The award-winning dollspace deployed the ghost girl doll yoko to lure web wanderers into a pond of dead girls. As GashGirl/Puppet Mistress, she explored the uploaded erotic imagination of strangers at LambdaMOO. More recent performances , collaborations and installations including delighted by the spectacle, hexecutable, songs for skinwalking the drone, hexing the alien, and lips becoming beaks have combined rule-driven poetry, fugue states, spells and prophesies as hexes against Capital.

“Certain subjects compel me – alchemy, folklore/folk law, emancipatory social experiments, the nature of cognition, and states of ‘madness’ and ecstasy. I approach art-making as a hexing, a spell, a witch’s ladder to another realm. To paraphrase anarchist anthropologist David Graeber, a revolutionary act is to behave as if one were free.” da Rimini

What to Expect on a Luxury Indonesian Glamping Vacation

“Hello, I’m Riz Lateef. Tonight our top story: Instagram travel-star Amber Hinton is missing in Indonesia. Initial reports suggest she has been kidnapped by an ISIS faction operating in the region. We’ll have more on that after the headlines.”

In 2014 Amber Hinton left a lucrative job in finance to follow her ‘dream’ of travelling the world. Like many young women she recognised the potential inherent in her looks; she had an ability to tap into veins of social media, and grasped the appeal for people to ‘follow’ in her footsteps. Educated, professional and dedicated she began by surveying Twitter and Instagram; filtering by hashtags she categorised countries by cultural capital (aka likes, retweets, comments) and then cross referenced with existing coverage. Logic followed that if Thailand was hot right now it might not be hot in a year’s time. Novelty and newness would be essential to getting a foothold in the market.

After months of post-work spread-sheeting, Amber was ready. At a brunch with friends she introduced a mood-board and sales-pitched her new life. I say mood-board, but really I mean a highly aestheticised business strategy. She’d categorised hundreds of travel lifestyle pics and identified core principles of success. With Google Analytics she’d examined the lifespan of a hashtag. She’d reviewed where successful Instagram travellers had been, which countries were oversaturated and which were primed to explode. She’d mapped a route, ensuring a balance between city, beach and country, simultaneously factoring in cost efficiency. She’d prototyped a website and employed a graphic designer to mock up a look and feel for her personal ‘brand identity’. She’d run financial predictions, how long her start-up capital would last, how she expected to turn a profit through funding websites, travel blogging, and eventually as an advertising service for hotels and travel companies.

It was, in short, a stunning piece of work. If Amber had been inclined towards the monastic life of a PhD researcher, she could have turned it into four years paid writing, then subsequently taught her findings at Oxbridge without ever leaving the UK.



With her friends’ enthusiasm and her parents’ consent Amber left for Italy. Between 2014 and 2017 she travelled across the world, first moving in small steps, from Italy to Slovenia, to Bulgaria and Turkey. From Turkey she jumped around the Middle East and North Africa, avoiding conflict zones and skipping countries whose religious codes might frown upon her displayed body. Everywhere she went she befriended new contacts to utilise, chic twenty-somethings who’d invite her to their parents’ villas, rich bankers who’d get her into rooftop parties. Courting the cultural elite was vital; she didn’t have the financial reserves to fund a lavish lifestyle, but she could enter those worlds and achieve an image of effortless glamour.

By the time she reached the Moroccan coast she’d amassed over 75K followers. Enough to be on the radar of international PR girls. Invitations started flying in: five star luxury hotels and exotic adventures. Whilst sipping alcohol-free cocktails and bronzing her skin, she strategised her next move.

She flew to Malta, then across the Atlantic, island-hoping round the Caribbean. In America she visited boutique ranches and hunted down bohemian culture. Down to Mexico, then South America, a perfect blend of high class living and poverty porn. From South America she crossed the Pacific, stopping in at Hawaii on the way, then modern China and finally, in early 2017, Indonesia.

The world first knew something had gone wrong for Ms Hinton was when she posted a unusual message on Twitter. For three days she’d been five star eco-glamping in the rain-forested hills of Lombok, swimming in waterfalls, taking selfies with monkeys and then suddenly:

I heard a gun shot! What do I do! HELP HELP HELP

Minutes later a second tweet followed:

They said my name, tell me parents I love them

Within minutes a storm of activity was echoing around the Twitter-sphere and #saveamber was the number one trending topic on social media. Facebook campaigns began and Indonesian public officials were receiving flak from latte drinking yuppies in North London. By the second day the Foreign Office had publicly announced that British tourists in Indonesia were advised to leave the country immediately. Typically slow to respond, but then absolutely committed, ISIS announced that Ms Hinton’s abduction had been orchestrated by them, despite it obviously being carried out by a unassociated cell with little to no connection with the upper echelons. For three consecutive days BBC Breakfast News dedicated a half hour to the unfolding crisis; they even flew Naga Munchetty out to Bali to goad tourists into overreactions.

Five days of media fixation were followed by a week of not giving a damn; then out of the blue something very odd began to happen. Instagram accounts operating out of the Indonesian and Philippine ISIS territories started taking on a much more aesthetically sensitive tone. Poorly photoshopped images were replaced with a wave of creative shots. Against verdant jungle foliage, handsome young fighters were pictured topless, sweat glistening on their ripped pecks, rifles casually held over their shoulders. Puppies were photographed wrapped in ISIS flags. Trope travel images, ‘everyone jumping on the beach together’ and ‘girl leading boy’, were bastardised into calls to martyrdom.



At first Amber’s family was relieved; their daughter was alive and communicating with the world. Security services reassured them that eventually she would reveal her position, then they’d be able to plan her rescue. Weeks developed into months and still it seemed Amber was so tightly under the thumb of her captors that she couldn’t encode a message. All they could do was watch her PR strategy unfold.

Back home Theresa May used the crisis to spearhead her personal campaign against social media giants and internet freedoms. “By doing nothing, Instagram encourages ISIS”. In truth they were shutting down hundreds of accounts each day and actively handing data to the NSA and GCHQ.

By the time a video appeared online, ‘Amber’s Top 5 Tips For The Perfect Jihadi Pic’, Theresa had reached her line in the sand. Co-ordinating with the Indonesian President Joko Widodo, Ms Hinton was marked a priority target. If and when they had a lock on her location, an American drone would strike.

The final Instagram post attributed to Ms Hinton was posted on the 25th of June 2017.

For three weeks MI6 had been working in close communication with Indonesian intelligence officials to triangulate her location, scrutinising every post for a telltale clue. Eventually it was a sun umbrella that gave her away; its pattern of red and yellow stripes was attributed to a hotel on a recently occupied island. The post was confirmed as being a Amber original due to her characteristic use of the Juno filter and the Smiling Cat Face With Heart-Eyes emoji.

Amber’s parents were never told the truth about their daughter’s death. Several months afterwards a nice man from the intelligence services told them they believed ISIS had killed her, citing a lack of posts as evidence. Communications were falsified when they demanded proof. They were never shown the photos of her charred scalp, or the one of her left foreleg on the beach; it’d be blown clean clear of the hotel. In the end only a few people, in secret rooms, ever saw the evidence. None of the photos ever made their way online.



Hunting the Machine Ghosts of Brighton

Flexicity, information city, intelligent city, knowledge-based city, MESH city, telecity, teletopia, ubiquitous city, wired city… [what is] a city that dreams of itself?” (Jones 2016).

This April, 28 brave souls came together for the first time to explore algorithmic ghosts in Brighton — a city known for its blending of new-age spiritualities and digital medias, but perhaps not yet for its ghosts — through the launch of a new psychogeography tour for the Haunted Random Forest festival. Unveiling machine entities hidden within seemingly idyllic urban landscapes, from peregrine falcon webcams to always-listening WiFi hotspots, we witnessed a new glimpse of an old city, one that afforded many strange moments of unexpected (and perhaps even radical!) wisdom regarding the forgotten structures, algorithms and networks that traverse Brighton daily alongside its human inhabitants.

This intervention found its greatest inspiration in the playful, crtitical, anti-authoritarian strategies of the Situationist International group that was prominent in 1950s Europe and birthed the fluid concept of dérive or “drift”, a new method for engaging with cities like Paris through “psychogeographic” walks that charted increasingly inconsistent evolutions of urban environments and their effects on individuals. “Perhaps the most prominent characteristic of psychogeography is the activity of walking,” explains Sherif El-Azma from the Cairo Psychogeographical Society. “The act of walking is an urban affair, and in cities that are increasingly hostile to pedestrians, walking [itself]… become[s] a subversive act.”

Participants sketch mock airline travel warnings for the use of i360's mock fligParticipants sketch mock airline travel warnings for the use of i360’s mock flight attendants.

Psychogeographical drifts have been interpreted in many ways in many places, from radical city tours with no set destination, to public pamphlets meant to shock people out of their daily urban routines, to unsanctioned street artworks that explore changing architectures and hegemonies of the built environment through direct dialogues. As the Loiterer’s Resistance Movement explains, “We can’t agree on what psychogeography means, but we all like plants growing out of the sides of buildings, looking at things from new angles, radical history, drinking tea and getting lost, having fun and feeling like a tourist in your home town. Gentrification, advertising, surveillance and blandness make us sad… our city is made for more than shopping. We want to reclaim it for play and revolutionary fun.”

In our own interpretation of the psychogeography “play box“, people from across the UK came together from local community discussion lists, universities and creative networks to join the group. We called them ‘node guardians’ to connote a shared sense of ownership regarding both the tour nodes (which were lead not only by ourselves but also by several other brave participants, who also facilitated hands-on activities to engage listeners more deeply in the lived experiences of each machine node). We were intrigued about the moments of access, control and liberation that might be exposed when the machines, networks and algorithms that we engage with on a daily basis were revealed. In the unearthing of lesser-known instances of code-based activity (and the patterns within), we hoped to meet machine spirits, languages and loves along the way. And meet them we did.

Although the tour aimed to seek out algorithms and machines, we didn’t feel limited to influences from our current digital age. Brighton has a rich history of invention and engineering which has influenced the local geography as well as wider culture. The ghosts of Magnus and George Herbert Volk, father-and-son engineers, can be found all over the city, from Magnus Volk’s seafront Electric Railway which opened in 1883 — making it the oldest working electric railway in the world — to George’s seaplane workshop in the trendy North Laine shopping area, which went on to house a thoroughly modern digital training provider, Silicon Beach Training. Magnus Volk’s most unusual invention, though, only exists as a part of Brighton’s colourful history: the Brighton and Rottingdean Electric Railway, as it was officially called, earned the nickname the ‘daddy-long-legs railway’ as it ran right through the sea with the train car raised up above the waves on 7-meter-long legs. The railway was only in operation for 5 years from 1896 to 1901, but you can still see some of the railway sleepers for the tracks along the beach at low tide.

For a relatively small town, Brighton also played a surprisingly big role in the development of the international cinema industry. In the 1890s and 1900s, a group of early filmmakers, chemists and engineers called the Brighton School pioneered film-making techniques such as dissolves, close-ups and double exposure, and created new processes for capturing and projecting moving images. Key members of the group used the old pump house in local pleasure garden St Ann’s Wells as a film laboratory and shot the world’s first colour motion picture called ‘A Visit to the Seaside’ in Brighton in 1908, using a colour film process called Kinemacolour invented by the group. Although the city’s early passion for cinema is remembered by several blue plaques marking key locations — and the presence of the Duke of York’s cinema, the oldest continually operating cinema in the UK — we wondered how much of Brighton life had been captured in the dozens of short films made at the turn of the century, only to be lost forever?

Emma O'Sullivan unearths one of Brighton's last standing dead drops, nestled in Emma O’Sullivan unearths one of Brighton’s last standing dead drops, nestled in a nondescript wall off the pier.

The rest of the stops on our walking tour took in more contemporary machine ghosts, including the last remaining trace of the city’s USB dead drop network — conveniently embedded in a brick wall on the seafront above the Fishing Museum — which prompted us to ask what information people may have passed to each other before these devices were destroyed by weather and vandals. Dead drops were originally set up to be an anonymized form of peer-to-peer file-sharing that anyone could use in public spaces. They have since been embedded into buildings, walls, fences and curbs across the world. Perhaps some of our tour participants will even be inspired to set up new dead drops around the city to keep the potential for off-grid knowledge-sharing alive.

In a reversal of this spirit of anonymous digital communication, a new network of WiFi-enabled lampposts, CCTV cameras and other pieces of ‘street furniture’ has been unobtrusively installed across the city by BT, in partnership with Brighton & Hove City Council. They now eavesdrop on the personal musings of passers-by who connect to them. These hidden devices provide users with a free WiFi service, but the group wondered at what cost. Participants found themselves questioning whether BT can be trusted to keep our information secure in an age where data has become a valuable marketing commodity.

Closeup of the BT's cheery wifi hotspot greeting, its actual location remaining Closeup of the BT’s cheery wifi hotspot greeting, its actual location remaining deliberately vague.

As part of our psychogeographical aim to unveil the hidden lives of once-familiar urban artefacts, we also summoned the machine ghosts of some of Brighton’s most famous (and infamous) landmarks. Looming over the city centre is a towering modernist high-rise called Sussex Heights, a building that sticks out like a sore thumb amidst the classic Regency architecture of the city’s Old Town. Yet atop the concrete tower also live families of peregrine falcons, whose nesting activities are broadcast to the world by an ever-watching webcam. Conservation groups, architects and technologies intersected in 1990 to provide a nesting box that would enable the falcons, extinct in the area at the time, to successfully breed. They now return to the tower block every spring to rear their young (except in 2002, when they chose the West Pier instead). Writing down our best wishes to this season’s hatchlings, we pasted them onto the building for future city ghosts to browse.

The other most visible instance of architectural and structural technologies descending upon the city can be seen in the new British Airways i360 viewing tower, variously described as a ‘suppressed lollipop’, a ‘hanging chad’, ‘an oversized flagpole’, an ‘eyesore’ and a ‘corporate branding post’. Even if you leave the city, you can’t get away from the sight of the 162-metre tall tower, as it is equally visible from the countrysides surrounding Brighton. It overshadows its neighbour, the beloved remains of the burnt-out West Pier, and opened exactly 150 years after the West Pier first opened in 1866. However, the ‘innovation’ in the i360’s name may be a boon to the city, as it’s expected to pour £1 million a year in the local community and potentially inspire the renovation of the West Pier. Our node-guardians bravely attempted a participatory activity outside the i360 which involved sketching out mock flight warnings to those who entered its gates; the mock flight attendants situated at the base of the i360 were less than amused by these efforts.

Node guardian Cian O'Donovan describes the claims and contradictions of the new Node guardian Cian O’Donovan describes the claims and contradictions of the new British Airways i360 observation tower.

In most towns, the shopping centre becomes a well-known haunt for both locals and visitors to congregate, yet most people who visit Brighton’s Churchill Square shopping mall pass by the square’s large pair of digital sound sculptures without even a glance. The sculptures look like a pair of matching stone and bronze spheres, and are the type of public art that you can walk past everyday without actually looking at, but after looking into their always-observing faces once, you’ll never miss them again. They quietly interact with the sky every day through a set of complicated light sensors that trigger a series of musical notes tuned in to each orchestration and angle of the sun. As the sun rises, they call out to one another, their combined song fading away as the sky turns dark. Or at least, we are told they communicate; after a group activity to emulate the interactivities of the spheres, we found ourselves quite unsure if we had actually heard ghostly spherical music emanating from spherical mouths, or just the sound of shoppers and buses passing by.

And finally, if you’ve lived in Brighton for a while you’ve probably come across the French radio station FIP, which until a few years ago you could tune into on radios across the city. While standing in the bustling North Laine cultural quarter, we were briefly transported to Paris by one of our node guardians’ melodica renditions of Parisian cafe music, and heard the story of how a local resident introduced Brighton to FIP in the late 1990s when they started re-broadcasting the radio station out over the city. It became one of the most popular radio stations in town and transmissions continued until 2013, even surviving an Ofcom raid on the mystery broadcaster’s house in 2007 when their equipment was confiscated. The story of Brighton’s love for FIP radio, including a monthly fan-organised club night called Vive La FIP that joyously ran from clubs around the city for years, shows that as well as its own ghosts, our city is also haunted by the machines of distant places.

Kat Braybrooke introduces a miniature always-listening wifi hotspot, installed aKat Braybrooke introduces a miniature always-listening wifi hotspot, installed along the ocean by BT in return for ownership over the pole it sits on.

Indeed, from the distant ghosts of rebellions past to those who quietly slip by underfoot as we walk to the pier, the derives of this tour taught us that unearthing hidden histories of a city can bring both good and bad spirits back to life — moments of local liberation and defiance existing alongside a national state of increased surveillance, conglomeration and control. We call for future tours, psychogeographic and otherwise, that challenge participants to think about Brighton through new forms of engagement that focus on grassroots and community efforts, and their implications in the spaces and places we use every day. Only then can we determine whether the ghosts that surround us are in charge of our fates, or whether the myriad past and present struggles of this city can co-exist in collaboration.

The Future is (not) a Problem

Techno-fixes are big business. Taking a quick look over the Financial Times’ list of the world’s largest companies[1], it might not surprise us that five of the top spots are occupied by corporations dealing in Information Technology. The looseness of this term connotes the production and dissemination of hardware, software and data, yet increasingly such companies are moving beyond this operational remit and have begun selling a vision of how life in its totality could—and should—be lived. Over the last decade, these so-called ‘Big Tech’ companies—Apple, Alphabet (Google’s parent company), Microsoft, Amazon, and Facebook—have sought to fashion bespoke technological ‘fixes’ to particular global crises, with the aim being no less than shaping the future of humanity itself. Facebook’s Aquila solar drone project, for instance, will help four billion people in disparate regions of the globe ‘access all the opportunities of the internet’[2]. Meanwhile, Alphabet’s experimental X subsidiary is developing Project Loon, a competing network infrastructure powered by a fleet of solar balloons[3] .Which connected future do we want: one with networks of balloons or drones? Or, more to the point: one filtered through the prism of Google’s or Facebook’s algorithms? The fictional character of Gavin Belson, the deranged CEO of the quasi-Facebook-Google mashup Hooli in HBO’s comedy series Silicon Valley, captures the bizarre competitive logic of Big Tech utopianism when he states with marked frustration:

Gavin Belson: 'I don't want to live in a world where somebody else makes the world a better place better than we do'‘I don’t want to live in a world where someone else makes the world a better place better than we do.’

It is not only the digital divide and the contingent possibilities of market expansion which Big Tech is claiming to ‘solve’ with these ambitious infrastructural projects. Climate change, healthcare, forced migration, democracy, and automation are all staked out in branded promotional media[4] as challenges which have imminent technological solutions—just a few ‘versions’ away. In such media, we are pushed forward into a time where these complex issues have been resolved, becoming conspicuous non-features of everyday life, unrecognized background conditions that allow us to marvel at the much more spectacular and exciting business of glossy technological innovations: the familiar gesture-controlled sheets of glass, the smart-everythings and the augmented-anythings.

Stills from Microsoft's Productivity Future Vision (2011)Stills from Microsoft’s Productivity Future Vision from 2011.

In these ‘design fictions’, as the Brazilian theorists Gonzatto et al. call such marketing campaigns, present crises ‘are anticipated and solved by technology’, proffering resolutions that ‘nurture consumers into consumption habits and convince investors of their capacity to fulfil those same demands’[5]. In this way, design fictions are replete with ‘solutionist’ fantasies where digital technology is positioned as a corrective to the challenges and irregularities of living. Solutionism, what Evgeny Morosov describes as an ‘intellectual pathology’[6] that can only consider problems in the form of their smart technical ‘fix’, nullifies any wider discussion of the problem at hand, abstracting the proposed resolution from the historical, social and political context of its implementation.

Therefore, whilst it is hard not to be seduced by the glossy ingenuity of projects such as Aquila and Loon, we ought to take a moment to question the frictionless future championed in these grand projects. The crises opened up and subsequently ‘solved’ by Big Tech companies scaffold the realm of present and future possibilities for our collective engagement: to determine a set of relations as constituting a crisis is to justify and arrange the ground for its resolution. For this reason, it is important to ask: Whose crisis is it anyway? Who has defined the problem that needs solving? And whose interests are being served by these proposed solutions? With such queries in mind, the benign qualities of design fictions are problematised, and their rootedness in the techno-politics of the present become plainly visible.

Image of Facebook's Aquila drone mid-flight.Image of Facebook’s Aquila drone mid-flight.

The recent publication of Mark Zuckerberg’s Building Global Community[7] manifesto affords such queries a timely focal point. At stake in Zuckerberg’s far-reaching manifesto is, in essence, the role that Big Tech can play in global governance. More specifically, it proposes the positive contribution that can come from Facebook’s direct engagement with the tasks of local and national security, the distribution and moderation of information, governmental politics, and fostering a post-national communalism.

These are indeed lofty ambitions, even for a company that boasts a quarter of the world’s population as monthly active users. However, Facebook purports to relish such a challenge, motivating employees by reminding them that the “journey is 1% finished”[8]. The ‘journey’ in question here is the fixing of what Facebook sees as a crisis of disconnection experienced by those almost exclusively situated in remote regions of the Global South. Facebook asks us to imagine how much better the lives of these ‘disconnected’ people could be if only they had access to the same degree of internet connectivity that those of us in the Global North enjoy on a day-to-day basis. With these sentiments in mind, the remainder of Facebook’s arduous voyage will largely be accomplished through the development of high-profile projects such as, where the polished graphics of constituent programmes such as Free Basics and the aforementioned Aquila act as ethical avatars for Facebook’s very own brand of solutionism.

Screenshot of's Free Basics product page.Screenshot of’s Free Basics programme webpage.

Zuckerberg claims that, ‘in times like these, the most important thing we at Facebook can do is develop the social infrastructure to give people the power to build a global community that works for all of us’[9]. Free Basics aims to provide a free-as-in-beer (but not free-as-in-freedom) curated portal to specific sites on the internet, providing information about healthcare, news, employment, and education to individuals who might otherwise live offline and thus disconnected lives. The humanitarian rhetoric follows that bringing ‘people online’ will ‘help improve their lives’ and additionally offer these societies ‘knowledge’, ‘tools’, and global connections—these are fundamentally good things worthy of our support, right? The predictable catch is revealed in’s promotional material, whereby companies prospecting for new markets are offered a head-start on reaching ‘the next wave of people coming to the internet’[10], albeit through Facebook’s technical infrastructure and curatorial apparatuses. Such philanthropic endeavours, if successful, assist in consolidating the corporation’s present hegemonic position in future scenarios. For governments struggling with establishing network infrastructures, Free Basics proposes an attractively simple solution that, with Facebook’s capital and clout, can be quickly deployed and established. It is however a valuable foothold, one that prescribes a developmental course that entangles the technical apparatuses of the corporation with the task of future regional governance. This is the strategic-thinking which fuels the bizarre competitive logic of Big Tech utopianism, and which sits as the political kernel of future visions. It is the rhetoric of the real-life Gavin Belsons of Silicon Valley. "The more we connect, the better it gets."‘The more we connect, the better it gets.’

By determining that there is a crisis of disconnection, Facebook prepares the ground for its resolution in the form of projects such as The idea that a global community of connected Facebook users can level the systematic inequalities in wages, living standards, and welfare provision inherent to globalized capitalism is a resolution that erases the multiplicity of forces acting upon a complex array of interacting crises. In making this erasure, Facebook’s logic of development draws an uncomplicated line of progression from ‘unconnected’ to ‘connected’ subjects. Such thinking is as obviously reductionist, and contestable, as the pathways that lead from ‘boy’ to ‘man’, ‘young’ to ‘old’, ‘civilised’ to ‘uncivilised’. These binary terms edifying developmental logic are laden with normative significance, implying a way of thinking about the world that presupposes and prescribes a certain way of living within it. The interconnected and complex issues that contribute to global inequality—institutional structural biases, discriminatory trade relations, the experiences of colonialism, the exploitation of resources, to name but a scant few of a vast number—do not even come into the equation. In this schematic, Facebook’s own position in relation to these matters is unacknowledged. Furthermore, the position of humans as ‘Facebook users’ worldwide is not only rendered as neutral, closing off debate around value production and labour processes in digital capitalism, but positively imbued with some sort of higher moral purpose. What does it mean, then, for Facebook to imagine a time beyond crisis? To offer a resolution to the ‘problem’ of global disconnection? As Antoinette Rouvroy would argue, such thinking inoculates the present and ‘forecloses the future’[11]. 

How is (X) captured?A Network Diagnostics query card.

This example of does not simply aim to expose the economic incentives lurking behind such seemingly benevolent global projects—these motives should be obvious enough already. Rather, we hope to have opened up the conversation surrounding these future visions, and the possibility of techno-fixes in general, as a means to question how we as humans come to know, relate to, and interact with both the technological era we inhabit and the perceived ‘crises’ of our time. We suggest that determining the political qualities of a ‘crisis’ opens an essentially creative and interpretative space—one that leads to a recognition of both vulnerability and empowerment. To situate yourself within the field of imagined problems and potential resolutions is to shape the possibilities of your subsequent action. Being exiled from this process, by virtue of being exterior to the kind of walled-off discussions leading’s various initiatives, leaves us neither vulnerable nor empowered. Rather, we find ourselves neutralized in the analytical inertia of solutionist design fictions and the galleries of seductive techno-fixes rendered within.

If solutionism presupposes techno-fixes which close off alternative paths of action, Network Diagnostics intends to provide a space that expands our ability to think beyond these prescriptive future visions of Big Tech. Using ‘troubleshooting’ as a methodological tool, we propose to collaboratively examine not just what such visions include, but, perhaps more significantly, what they leave out. We aim to hold open a space for creative analytical discussion, whilst shirking the call to find a rigorous ‘fix’ to what we discover. In doing so, we hope to invigorate the modes of analysis available to those interested in the relationship between humanity and technology in the era of big data capitalism. Our collective diagnostic of the future ultimately hopes to help people understand, live within, and resist the conditioning forces we currently face in the present. Whilst we are not proposing solutions, and we do not claim to have fixed the crisis of analytical inertia wrought by the pressure of technological advancement, our practice uninhibits critique by recognizing the empowerment of claiming vulnerability, and problematising the relations at work in foreclosed, prescribed crises. Whereas Facebook and other such organisations strive to ‘move fast’, we suggest that we should dwell thoughtfully in the process of diagnosis in an effort to self-reflexively decouple the crisis from its readymade solution.

Niall Docherty is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Critical Theory at the University of Nottingham. His research involves an analysis of Facebook within the neoliberal context of its inception and current use, through the frames of governmentality and software studies.

Dave Young is an artist and a M3C/AHRC-funded PhD candidate at the Centre for Critical Theory at the University of Nottingham, and is currently researching bureaucratic media and systems of command and control in the US military since the Second World War.



[1] Financial Times (2017). FT500: The World’s Largest Companies.’

[2] Zuckerberg, Mark (2016) ‘The Technology behind Aquila.’

[3] X (2017). ‘Balloon-powered internet for everyone’.

[4] Microsoft (2015). ‘Productivity Future Vision’.

[5] Gonzatto et al (2013). ‘The ideology of the future in design fictions’.

[6] Morosov, Evgeny (2013). ‘The Perils of Perfection’.

[7] Zuckerberg, Mark (2017). ‘Building Global Community’.

[8] Facebook (2017). ‘Company Info: Culture’.

[9] Zuckerberg, Mark (2017). ‘Building Global Community’.

[10] (2017). ‘Free Basics Platform’.

[11] Rouvroy, A. (2017) ‘Revitalizing Critique Against the Critical Sirens of Algorithmic Governmentality’, talk given at the Westminster 6th annual ICTS and Society conference, May 21st 2017.

Lessons from the Luddites

In which the spectre of the Luddite software engineer is raised, in an AI-driven future where programming languages become commercially redundant, and therefore take on new cultural significance.

In 1812, Lord Byron dedicated his first speech in the House of Lords to the defence of the machine breakers, whose violent acts against the machines replacing their jobs prefigured large scale trade unionism. We know these machine breakers as Luddites, a movement lead by the mysterious, fictional character of General Ludd, although curiously, Byron doesn’t refer to them as such in his speech. With the topic of post-work in the air at the moment, the Luddite movements are instructive; The movement was comprised of workers finding themselves replaced by machines, left not in a post-work Utopia, but in a state of destitution and starvation. According to Hobsbawm (1952), if Luddites broke machines, it was not through a hatred of technology, but through self-preservation. Indeed, when political economist David Ricardo (1921) raised “the machinery question” he did so signalling a change in his own mind, from a Utopian vision where the landlord, capitalist, and labourer all benefit from mechanisation, to one where reduction in gross revenue hits the labourer alone. Against the backdrop of present-day ‘disruptive technology’, the machinery question is as relevant as ever.

The Leader of the Luddites
The Leader of the Luddites

A few years after his speech, Byron went on to father Ada Lovelace, the much celebrated prototypical software engineer. Famously, Ada Lovelace cooperated with Charles Babbage on his Analytical Engine; Lovelace exploring abstract notions of computation at a time when Luddites were fighting against their own replacement by machines. This gives us a helpful narrative link between mill workers of the industrial revolution, and software engineers of the information revolution. That said, Byron’s wayward behaviour took him away from his family, and he deserves no credit for Ada’s upbringing. Ada was instead influenced by her mother Annabella Byron, the anti-slavery and women’s rights campaigner, who encouraged Ada into mathematics.

Today, general purpose computing is becoming as ubiquitous as woven fabric, and is maintained and developed by a global industry of software engineers. While the textile industry developed out of worldwide practices over millennia, deeply embedded in culture, the software industry has developed over a single lifetime, the practice of software engineering literally constructed as a military operation. Nonetheless, the similarity between millworkers and programmers is stark if we consider weaving itself as a technology. Here I am not talking about inventions of the industrial age, but the fundamental, structural crossing of warp and weft, with its extremely complex, generative properties to which we have become largely blind since replacing human weavers with powerlooms and Jacquard devices. As Ellen Harlizius-Klück argues, weaving has been a digital art from the very beginning.

Software engineers are now threatened under strikingly similar circumstances, thanks to breakthroughs in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and “Deep Learning” methods, taking advantage of the processing power of industrial-scale server farms. Jen-Hsun Hu, chief executive of NVIDIA who make some of the chips used in these servers is quoted as saying that now, “Instead of people writing software, we have data writing software”. Too often we think of Luddites as those who are against technology, but this is a profound misunderstanding. Luddites were skilled craftspeople working with technology advanced over thousands of years, who only objected once they were replaced by technology. Deep learning may well not be able to do everything that human software engineers can do, or to the same degree of quality, but this was precisely the situation in the industrial revolution. Machines cannot make the same woven structures as hands, to the same quality, or even at the same speed at first, but the Jacquard mechanism replaced human drawboys anyway.

As a thought experiment then, let’s imagine a future where entire industries of computer programmers are replaced by AI. These programmers would either have to upskill to work in Deep Learning, find something else to do, or form a Luddite movement to disrupt Deep Learning algorithms. The latter case might even seem plausible when we recognise the similarities between the Luddite movement and Anonymous, both outwardly disruptive, lacking central organisation, and lead by an avatar: General Ludd in the case of the Luddites, and Guy Fawkes in the case of Anonymous.

Let’s not dwell on Anonymous though. Instead try to imagine a Utopia in which current experiments in Universal Basic Income are proved effective, and software engineers are able to find gainful activity without the threat of destitution. The question we are left with then is not what to do with all the software engineers, but what to do with all the software? With the arrival of machine weaving and knitting, many craftspeople continued hand weaving and handknitting in their homes and in social clubs for pleasure rather than out of necessity. This was hardly a surprise, as people have always made fabric, and indeed in many parts of the world handweaving has remained the dominant form of fabric making. Through much of the history of general purpose computing however, any cultural context for computer programming has been a distant second to its industrial and military contexts. There has of course been a hackerly counter-culture from the beginning of modern-day computing, but consider that the celebrated early hackers in MIT were funded by the military while Vietnam flared, and the renowned early Cybernetic Serendipity exhibition of electronic art included presentations by General Motors and Boeing, showing no evidence of an undercurrent of political dissent. Nonetheless, I think a Utopian view of the future is possible, but only once Deep Learning renders the craft of programming languages useless for such military and corporate interests.

Looking forward, I see great possibilities. All the young people now learning how to write code for industry may find that the industry has disappeared by the time they graduate, and that their programming skills give no insight into the workings of Deep Learning networks. So, it seems that the scene is set for programming to be untethered from necessity. The activity of programming, free from a military-industrial imperative, may become dedicated almost entirely to cultural activities such as music-making and sculpture, augmenting human abilities to bring understanding to our own data, breathing computational pattern into our lives. Programming languages could slowly become closer to natural languages, simply by developing through use while embedded in culture. Perhaps the growing practice of Live Coding, where software artists have been developing computer languages for creative coding, live interaction and music-making over the past two decades, are a precursor to this. My hope is that we will begin to think of code and data in the same way as we do of knitting patterns and weaving block designs, because from my perspective, they are one and the same, all formal languages, with their structures intricately and literally woven into our everyday lives.

Joanne Armitage Live Coding
Joanne live coding at access space

So in order for human cultures to fully embrace the networks and data of the information revolution, perhaps we should take lessons from the Luddites. Because they were not just agents of disruption, but also agents against disruption, not campaigning against technology, but for technology as a positive cultural force.

This article was written by Alex while sound artist in residence in the Open Data Institute, London, as part of the Sound and Music embedded programme.