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.


How to Grow Love on the Internet?

“I-love-you: the figure refers not to the declaration of love,

to the avowal,

but to the repeated utterance of the love cry.”

Roland Barthes, The Lover’s Discourse. Fragments, 1977.

Designed and published online on October 14th 2004[1], restored for The Wrong (Again) on November 1st 2015, the website I Love You by French artist Jacques Perconte[2] is not only a wonderful achievement of his research on image files visualization through the Internet, but also a fundamental piece of artwork for three reasons: first, it crystallizes a history of audiovisual technologies in the web age; next, it allows the analysis of his singular inventions on plasticity which are shaped by the offensive processes and techniques Perconte has developed until 2015; finally, it makes explicit the artist’s constant will to put the body to the test of digital technologies (in this case the partner’s body) and to literally inject life (each and every thought, interest, feeling, emotion, excitement, and desire aroused in him by the beloved body).

Two events in 2003 gave birth to this piece: a publication proposal from French publisher Didier Vergnaud of a book with the digital photographs of bodies he had been taking tirelessly; and his romantic encounter with the woman who would become his partner, muse and model, Isabelle Silvagnoli. I Love You merges two stories, two passions. The one with Isabelle blooms in May 2003[3]; at this time, Perconte has already an extensive experience of digital technologies that he had developed since 1995[4].

At the Bordeaux University, when Perconte notices that a computer is connected to the rest of world, he becomes aware of the technical and aesthetic issues of the digital network, issues largely ignored at this time. His quick mastering of how the web operates leads to a decisive work on “the digital bodies”: three image generator websites (ncorps) and four films made by re-filming multiple loops of these animated pictures. This series denotes that Perconte has assimilated four essential dimensions of the digital.

First, he notes the image exists primarily in the state of a compressed digital signal that needs to be displayed; the signal recorded and stored as a file is a model, shaped by algorithms; its visualizations change only according to the codecs and the supports. Next, he distinguishes the human dimension of the web: the bodies of the users surfing the Internet on their computers and interlinking one another.

Then, the material dimension: the computers interconnected by an abundance of servers all around the world which produces a random digital time; indeed Perconte noticed the connection time to the hosting server of his websites was unpredictable since the answering time fluctuated according to the Internet traffic density, the connection’s and the browser’s qualities, and the computer’s performance executing the query.

So he notices the fantastic system failures: “when the first JPEGs popped up on websites, it wasn’t unusual for a picture to be only partially displayed. Sometimes, this happened to produce strange distortions in the image. (…) Every now and then, the image would totally turn into an abstract composition with amazing colors.”[5] Consequently, these fluctuations of display reveal a prodigiously fertile field of investigation: recoding the visualization. Finally, the web can be defined by the coexistence of places, bodies, machines, protocols and programs interacting in complex ways as an evolving ecosystem. Thus, a device aimed at transforming models could be designed (model meaning both the person the artist reproduces with forms and images and the coded reduction), as GIF or JPEG sequences animated on a website. Since the parameters involved in the visualization of these sequences are renewed at each connection, Perconte knows these metamorphosis will be unlimited and give birth to n bodies [corps]). This research allowed Perconte to establish, by 1996, a stable platform aimed at recoding the visualization within the web to ultimately break the limitations of the model’s code into which the digital signal is reduced.

As he undertakes assembling photographs of Isabelle for the book project (38 degrés), this experience of the web will come back to him. The collection of several thousands digital pictures springs from the extensive exploration of the beloved body’s patterns and the obtained signals he looped (he retakes the displayed pictures several times), in an attempt to test the representation of love. The problem is twofold. On the one hand, this collection can only be unlimited since the observation is inexhaustible as he puts it: “when I think about her body, I dream of landscapes so large that one gets lost completely, there is so much to recognize, kilometers of skin where warmth rules, a soft, almost empty desert. Beauty, immensity where every vibration of light pushes the colors to reveal themselves in new ways. The variations (…) are endless.”[6] Furthermore, despite experimental photography techniques, he quickly reaches the limits of how much an image is capable of expressing absolute love. In order to find and visualize this love present within these files, Perconte selects and ranks hundreds of these images in a database and places them in an ecosystem on the web.

Perconte developed a server-side program by writing an open source application in PHP, the love writing program[7], in order to quantify the love present in the source code of these digital images displayed on the web. Love being unquantifiable by definition, the artist must add an arbitrary but rigorous calculation. This quantification is performed by the application triggered when a user clicks on one of the images of the collection: it calculates a specific variable by taking into account all the physical parameters of the connection but also the mathematical constants of proportions and universal harmony – ∏ and F (the golden section); then the application opens the image file, transforms it as a hexadecimal code and substitutes every occurrence of the sought value by the phrase “I Love You,” thus changing the architecture of the code describing the image. The browser requested to visualize the image compiles the modified code, but can only display it partially, at the cost of radical visual transformations, such as reconfigurations pixel structures, the emergence of new colors resulting in the reinterpretation of original motifs or subjects; the greater the amount of pure love, the more intense the abstraction. The motifs of the beloved body can mingle or merge entirely with the figuration of love. The browser is sometimes unable to visualize the image resulting in the appearance of a broken icon with a quote from Roland Barthes: “To try to write love is to confront the muck of language: that region of hysteria where language is both too much and too little, excessive (…) and impoverished (…).”[8]The broken icon evokes a digital iconoclasm, but furthermore signifies the limitations of visualization protocols that have been overtaken by an overflow inexpressible love. This substitution in the image source code of a value by the literal writing of love, raises the Perconte’s program to a “loveware.[9]

Not only has Perconte given life to this website, but he has been maintaining it for the eleven years he has been sharing his life with his partner. First and foremost, he constantly upgrades it. Indeed, he programmed on February 14th 2005 an “I Love You Collection” of all the “I Love You’s” which will be written in the images’ source code; from this description, the “Love Counter” determines the number of “I Love You’s” and their transposition in bytes: “This is a concrete and scientific way to know as precisely as possible how much love is streamed online, and more importantly how much love is contained in this work. Every time a picture is displayed and the code modified by love messages, the counter is updated. The more time goes by, the more love grows.”[10] Thus, the users themselves, without suspecting it, testify to the history of this Perconte’s love for his partner, write this love, perpetuate and amplify it. Donating his images to the network, leaving it to others to speak for him, the artist is no longer the excessive delirious lover (wonderfully described by Barthes[11]), but one who loves. Then, the artist updates his website on a regular basis.

For each exhibition he replaces the image collection and operates small technical changes in order to avoid falling behind on the developments of the web. Furthermore, he designed a photographic exhibition of this work started in 2003, It’s All About Love, from January 17th to April 17th 2008 in Pessac, where he gives to the public a synthesis and extension of the project, in the form of prints and animations on iPods[12]. Finally, he undertakes a complete restoration of the website in 2015. Indeed, I Love You has suffered from a rapid disruption of the web and the visualized pictures often began to show large gray patches. The invitation from The Wrong gave him the opportunity to get back to this core piece. The solution – consisting in placing the website in its original technological context, that is to say, on a server with the same configurations as in 2004 – was met with refusal from the web hosting providers. This is how he decided to work with one of his students of Chalon-sur-Saône, Garam Choi, a true code virtuoso, in order to rethink the programming of the website according to a large principle which governs web in recent years.

From the beginning of the web until the posting of I Love You, applications were executed by servers. However, with the exponential increase in web traffic, servers quickly became overloaded; moreover, computers have seen their computing power and storage soar while other programming languages, like JavaScript, gained importance. Thus, the logic that governed web-programming moved applications to the client-side. Choi and Perconte have therefore developed identically, from the original program in PHP, an application written in JavaScript so that it could be interpreted on the client-side, while maintaining the database on a server. The issue at stake was to create a dialogue between the server and the client-side application, especially to quantify the number of “I Love You’s” and write it into the database. Indeed, server specifications entail technological obstacles as soon as the instructions are not in compliance with the protocol. But the artist was quickly able to find a way to instruct the program to circumvent the prohibitions. Indeed, not only does he operates the substitution technique to modify the images source codes, but uses it as a trick to fool the server. The idea is to do it as if the client were loading an image from the server to display it; but the called address executes instead a script, in other words, instead of the image URL, the number of “I Love You’s” is shown.

The website restoration therefore takes hold of the website’s programming in the 2010’s, but reinvents it with ingenuity. It also alerts the Internet user on how some multinationals IT companies (Apple, Google) consider the universality of the net: Chrome hinders some images display, while Safari denies their visualization. Also, in the latter case, Perconte and Choi have provided the following message to the attention of the user: “Safari is not ready for love. It’s still blind.” On the contrary, the Firefox browser, developed by a global open-source community, allows optimal operation of I Love You at the exact replica of the first 2004 version. Indeed, Mozilla defends a free Internet that would be “a global public resource that must remain open and accessible” in which “everyone should be able to shape the Internet and their own experiences on the Internet.”[13] That is why the growing love of I Love You does not only symbolize the artist in his couple, but elevates itself to a principle of universal union and intimate communion through the web: a set of values that affirm a convivial conception of society resisting consumerist models imposed by technical industries, and taking the power of the Web back in the hands of all users.

I Love You is therefore crucial for the Internet user, the historian, the media theorist, the film analyst, the archivist and the curator of the twenty-first century. It invents a thought of the program as a plasticity fertilization tool through digital visualization technologies understood as open and unstable. It successfully manages to offer bright and virtuoso processes and techniques of recoding, exciting insights on the operation of some display supports and devices, along with their history and unrelenting criticism, and the refined and infinite visual writing of the story of a man in love through a limitless range of radical visual forms generating a pure aesthetic delight. It is an artwork that lives and grows thanks to the Internet users as a digital lining of a relationship blossoming in the world, and which, since it has adapted and transformed to the changing technological environment, becomes the figurehead of a libertarian conception of the Internet and digital technologies in general.

Warmest thanks to Nicole Brenez, Gaëlle Cintré, Kamilia Kard,

Filippo Lorenzin, Zachary Parris,

Jacques Perconte and Isabelle Silvagnoli.

(In)exactitude in Science : http://inexactitudeinscience.com

and I Love You : http://iloveyou.38degres.net

Text is translated from the first french extended edition : http://www.debordements.fr/spip.php?article431

[1] For New Forms Festival, Roundhouse Community Centre, Vancouver, Canada.

[2] Report to the interview with Jacques Perconte “Crossings”, made by Raphaël Nieuwjaer : http://www.debordements.fr/spip.php?article434

[3] Report to the film isz (2003), a “digital bouquet” Perconte gave her as a Xmas gift, made of five scanned petals: https://vimeo.com/27541314

[4] The early work by Jacques Perconte is exact contemporary of Achim Szepanski’s “Mille Plateaux Manifesto” (1995) and what has been called the “aesthetic of glitch” first in music: http://www.mille-plateaux.net/theory/download/manifesto.pdf. The artwork of Perconte, sharing the same concerns, stands appart from this aesthetic since he transfigures the glitch.

[5] Perconte Jacques. Notes for I Love You (our translation): http://www.jacquesperconte.com/oe?88

[6] Perconte Jacques. op. cit.

[7] Or the “love hunt code”: http://iloveyou.38degres.net/code/hunt.html

[8] Barthes Roland. A Lover’s Discourse. Fragments (1977). trans. Richard Howard. New-York: Hill and Wang, 1978. p.99.

[9] This term is an extension of its already existing meaning: http://www.oxforddictionaries. It is not only a program given freely by the author to the Internet users, but literally a program that itself writes love in the code. Fundamentally opposed to a “malware” like the virus iloveyou which spread via email in May 2000 and destroyed the data of tens of millions of computers worldwide.

[10] Perconte Jacques. “Lovecounter. True Streamed Love Counter”: http://iloveyou.38degres.net/More_Iloveyou.php

[11] Barthes Roland. “Gradiva”. op. cit. pp.124-126

[12] Since 2004, Perconte has repeatedly rephotographed some images of I Love You displayed on his computer to extend his collections.