On the Pictures Generation and AI Art

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The other day, I posted some AI images of land art that doesn’t exist on Instagram. I didn’t have a plan for these, but I liked them and wanted to share them. In the comments, my friend the photographer Richard Barnes wrote, “This is our new world which for the moment is totally reliant on the old one.”

Richard is absolutely right and there is a lot to unpack in that sentence. To take one obvious reading, AI image generation is based on datasets of images on the Internet. You can read my extensive take on this in my last essay for this site, California Forever, Or the Aesthetics of AI Images, but today, I want to tackle the issue of AI imagery and originality.

My desire to make these images was backward-looking, or more properly, hauntological. Hauntology, a concept that emerged from the work of French philosopher Jacques Derrida, later popularized in cultural theory by Mark Fisher, suggests that the present is haunted by the unfulfilled potentialities of the past, creating a sense of nostalgia for lost futures that were never realized. Fisher writes: “What haunts the digital cul-de-sacs of the twenty-first century is not so much the past as all the lost futures that the twentieth century taught us to anticipate.” (Mark Fisher, “What is Hauntology?Film Quarterly, Vol. 66, No. 1 (Fall 2012), 16, article paywalled by JSTOR). For Fisher, much of recent culture is permeated by this hauntological quality, exploring historical references, styles, and ideas that never fully materialized in their own time.

If this concept is unfamiliar, then take the show Stranger Things. Set in the 1980s, not only does it explore the aesthetic and cultural motifs of that era, it revisits the past in ways that underscore the absence of the utopian visions once promised by that time. This is evident in the show’s theme song by Michael Stein and Kyle Dixon (a.k.a. S U R V I V E), informed by 1980s synthesizer music by musicians like Tangerine Dream, Giorgio Moroder, Jean-Michel Jarré, Vangelis, and John Carpenter and performed on modular synthesizers and vintage synthesizers from the 1970s. Through its retrofuturistic setting, supernatural elements, and cultural references, Stranger Things effectively embodies this hauntological sentiment, appealing to audiences by conjuring a collective memory of a past both familiar and lost, a space where the promise of progress and the fear of what lies in the unknown are in constant dialogue, thereby reflecting our contemporary longing for a future that seems increasingly out of reach in the face of technological stagnation and political paralysis. Throughout the series, an alternate dimension called “the Upside Down” functions allegorically as a manifestation of hauntology, representing the shadowy underside of progress and the hidden costs of failed utopias. This parallel dimension, while mirroring the physical world, is engulfed in darkness, decay, and danger, embodying the repressed anxieties not only of teenage sexuality—the familiar foundation of horror films—but also of the pursuit of advancement without ethical consideration. It can be interpreted as the tangible realization of the lost futures Fisher describes, a space where the dreams of the past are not just forgotten but actively twisted into nightmares. This allegorical realm underscores the series’ exploration of the impact of scientific hubris and the disintegration of the social fabric, issues that resonate with contemporary anxieties about technological overreach and the erosion of social bonds. Through the lens of the Upside Down, Stranger Things critiques the nostalgia for a past that never fully addressed these underlying tensions, suggesting that without confronting these spectral fears, they will continue to haunt us, impeding the realization of truly progressive futures.

Being born in 1967, I was in high school in 1983, the year in which the first season of Stranger Things is set, so I would have been older than the kids in Stranger Things, but the showrunners, Matt and Russ Duffer (the Duffer Brothers) were born in 1984. There is something about the era just before one is born and in the years before one forms lasting memories, that triggers the hauntological sense, particularly in regard to its relation to the Freudian uncanny (the unheimlich), which emerges not just as a theoretical concept but as a lived emotional reality, the encounter with something familiar yet estranged by time or context, generating an unsettling yet compelling attraction. The era immediately before one’s birth is fertile ground for the uncanny because it is inherently connected to one’s existence, yet it remains elusive and out of reach, shrouded in the fog of collective cultural memory rather than personal experience.

This is where my interest in Land Art, which thrived in the late 1960s and early 1980s comes from. It’s a mythic and heroic past, right outside the scope of my lived awareness. Land Art, moveover, is at a particular inflection in the Greenbergian history of modern art and one that brings us closer to our topic at hand. Art critic Clement Greenberg famously sought to distill the essence and trajectory of art through the modernist progression of self-criticism towards purity and autonomy, particularly in painting. Greenberg posited that art should focus on the specificity of the medium, leading to an emphasis on formal qualities over content or context. Specifically, Greenberg argued that modernist painters should embrace and explore the flatness of the canvas rather than attempt to deny it through illusionistic techniques that create a sense of three-dimensional space on the two-dimensional surface. He saw abstract expressionism and color field painting as driven by the gradual shedding of extraneous elements (like figurative representation, narrative, and illusionistic depth) that were not essential to painting as a medium. This process of reduction aimed at focusing on what was uniquely intrinsic to painting—its flat surface and the potential for pure color and form. This approach is distinctly indebted to Hegelian aesthetics, in which art is seen as a vehicle for the spirit (Geist) to realize itself, moving towards a form of absolute knowing or self-consciousness. The late 1960s projects of Minimal Art, Land Art, and Conceptual Art can all be seen as elaborations of Greenbergian modernism. Minimal Art, with its emphasis on the physical object and the space it occupies, pushes Greenberg’s interest in medium specificity to its logical extreme by reducing art to its most fundamental geometric forms and materials, thereby focusing on the “objecthood” of the artwork itself. Land Art extends this exploration to the medium of the earth itself, engaging directly with the landscape to highlight the intrinsic qualities of the environment and the artwork’s integration with its site-specific context, thus reflecting Greenberg’s emphasis on the inherent characteristics of the artistic medium. Conceptual Art, although seemingly divergent in its prioritization of idea over form, aligns with Greenbergian modernism by stripping art down to its conceptual essence, thereby challenging the traditional boundaries of the art object and emphasizing the primacy of the idea, akin to Greenberg’s focus on the essential qualities of painting and bringing art back to relevance as a philosophical discourse. Together, these movements expand upon Greenberg’s foundational principles by exploring the boundaries of what art can be, each pushing the dialogue about medium specificity and the pursuit of purity in art further.

Coming out of architecture and history, I find art without rigor frustrating and boring, so the art of the late 1960s and early 1970s is my north star and I am indeed something of a neo-Greenbergian (more on that here). But during the 1970s, the Greenbergian trajectory encountered significant challenges, marking a pivot away from these ideals towards a more fragmented, pluralistic understanding of art. Rosalind Krauss’s 1979 essay “Sculpture in the Expanded Field” serves as a critical juncture in this shift. Krauss dismantles the Greenbergian barrier between sculpture and not-sculpture by introducing a set of oppositions that allowed for a broader, more inclusive understanding of sculpture. This “expanded field” theory challenged the purity of medium specificity by embracing a wider range of practices and materials, effectively undermining the modernist notion of progressive refinement and autonomy of the arts. Krauss:

From the structure laid out above, it is obvious that the logic of the space of postmodernist practice is no longer organized around the definition of a given medium on the grounds of material, or, for that matter, the perception of material. It is organized instead through the universe of terms that are felt to be in opposition within a cultural situation.

Krauss’s essay, well-intentioned though it was, did not offer a positive direction for research in art, encouraging the sort of lazy pluralism and market-oriented art that has defined far too much art production in the years since.

The one exception to all this, however, is photography. If, in my essay on the aesthetics of AI images, I lamented the obsession with technical proficiency at the cost of taste in amateur HDR photography, in the hands of the best photographers —from the New Topographics movement in the 1970s to the work of great living photographers today, like Hiroshi Sugimoto, Guy Dickinson, David Maisel and Richard Barnes—the technical nature of photography is used to explore the photograph as a medium. And photography, by its very nature as an index of reality, its inexorable relationship between the subject and its representation—aligns with the Greenbergian ideal of art that is true to its medium more effectively than other media.

Rosalind Krauss, “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” October, Vol. 8 (Spring 1979), 43.

Few artists have interrogated the roles of authorship, originality, and representation as effectively as the Pictures Generation, a loosely affiliated group of artists—mainly photographers—named after Pictures, a 1977 exhibition at New York’s Artists Space curated by Douglas Crimp. These artists embraced appropriation, montage, and the recontextualization of pre-existing images, deliberately blurring the boundaries between high art and popular culture and questioning the notion of an artwork’s purity and originality. Not all of this work still speaks to us today. John Baldessari’s art has aged poorly and many artists, such as Richard Prince, have long ago stopped doing interesting work. But at the time Prince, Cindy Sherman, Robert Longo (who admittedly also worked in paintings and charcoal, but in ways akin to the other four in this group), and Sherrie Levine produced compelling and rigorous work during this period. Crimp, on the name “pictures”:

To an ever greater extent our experience is governed by pictures, pictures in newspapers and magazines, on television and in the cinema. Next to these pictures firsthand experience begins to retreat, to seem more and more trivial. While it once seemed that pictures had the function of interpreting reality,it now seems that they have usurped it. It therefore becomes imperative to understand the picture itself, not in order to uncover a lost reality, but to determine how a picture becomes a signifying structure of its own accord. But pictures are characterized by something which, though often remarked, is insufficiently understood: that they are extremely difficult to distinguish at the level of their content, that they are to an extraordinary degree opaque to meaning. The actual event and the fictional event, the benign and the horrific, the mundane and the exotic, the possible and the fantastic: all are fused into the all-embracing similitude of the picture.

Douglas Crimp, Pictures (New York: Artists Space, 1977), 3.

For these artists then, the question of representation itself was fundamental, indeed the proper object for art. Crimp elaborated on this in a thorough revision to this essay, published two years later. This time, Crimp introduces the notion that these works demonstrate a postmodernist break with the modernist tradition:

But if postmodernism is to have theoretical value, it cannot be used merely as another chronological term; rather it must disclose the particular nature of a breach with modernism. It is in this sense that the radically new approach to mediums is important. If it had been characteristic of the formal descriptions of modernist art that they were topographical, that they mapped the surfaces of artworks in order to determine their structures, then it has now become necessary to think of description as a stratigraphic activity. Those processes of quotation, excerptation, framing, and staging that constitute the strategies of the work I have been discussing necessitate uncovering strata of representation.

Douglas Crimp, “Pictures,” October, Vol. 8 (Spring 1979), 87.

The astute reader might note that this is in the very same issue as the Krauss essay above. The issue, however, does not lead with either essay, but by a piece titled “Lecture in Inauguration of the Chair of Literary Semiology, Collège de France, January 7, 1977.” The author is, of course, the semiotician Roland Barthes and he is the crux to the argument of this essay. Barthes’s inaugural lecture at the Collège de France marks the acceptance of semiotics, the study of signs, in the university and sets out an agenda in which the field would not only attempt to analyze linguistic and literary matters but also provide a framework for decoding culture at large. Barthes is especially important to us in terms of his 1967 essay “The Death of the Author,” which was published in a widely read 1977 English collection of his works titled Image-Music-Text. In this essay, Barthes challenges traditional notions of authorial sovereignty by arguing that the meaning of a text is not anchored in the author’s original intent but is instead constructed by the reader’s engagement with the text. This radical shift foregrounds the role of the audience in creating meaning, suggesting that a work of art is a collaborative space where interpretations multiply beyond the author’s control. Intertwined with this concept is the idea of intertextuality, which posits that every text (or artwork) is not an isolated entity but a mosaic of references, influences, and echoes from other texts. Intertextuality underscores the interconnectedness of cultural production, indicating that the understanding of any work is contingent upon its relation to the broader network of cultural artifacts. Together, these concepts dismantle the traditional hierarchy between creator and receiver, emphasizing the active role of the reader or viewer in making meaning and highlighting the complex web of relationships that define the production and reception of art.

This perspective was crucial for the Pictures artists who frequently employed appropriation as a strategy, taking pre-existing images from various media and recontextualizing them in their art. This method directly engaged with Barthes’s idea by challenging the original context and intended meaning of these images, thus questioning the notions of originality and authorship. In doing so, they highlighted the idea that the creator’s authority over an artwork’s meaning is not absolute but rather shared with viewers, who bring their own interpretations and experiences to bear on the work.

Moreover, these artists applied Barthes’s concept to emphasize the fluidity and contingency of meaning. Their work often invites viewers to interpret images through their own cultural references and personal experiences, suggesting that meaning is not a fixed entity but a dynamic interaction. In critically engaging with the proliferation of images in contemporary society, the Pictures Generation explored how photographic and cinematic imagery shapes perceptions of identity and reality. This critical stance aligns with Barthes’s view of the text (or image) as a fabric of quotations and influences, further diminishing the role of the author in favor of a more collaborative and interpretive approach to meaning-making.

Crucially, this shift also led to a reevaluation of the artist’s identity. Rather than being seen as the singular source of meaning, artists of the Pictures Generation positioned themselves more as curators or commentators, utilizing the visual languages of their time to critique cultural norms and values. This reflects a move away from the modernist emphasis on the artist’s unique vision toward a recognition of the complex, contextual nature of art-making and interpretation.

Barthes’s idea—that the author’s intent and biography recede in importance compared to the reader’s role in creating meaning—parallels a shift towards viewing the artwork itself, and its reception, as central to its interpretation. This shift can be seen as aligning with Greenberg’s emphasis on the medium’s physical and visual properties as the locus of artistic significance, and Hegel’s idea of art revealing universal truths, though through a more contemporary lens focused on the viewer’s engagement.

But practices such as appropriation, pastiche, and intertextuality can also be framed as a mannerist lament, a response to a widely perceived exhaustion of possibilities within modernism. Compounding this, with the postwar rise of commercial art and Pop art, capital was thoroughly permeated by the strategies of the avant-garde and vice versa. Even shock, the classic technique of the avantgarde had been turned into a marketing tool, signaling the thorough co-option of avant-garde tactics by the very systems it sought to critique. The avant-garde‘s political validity was now deeply in question, something elaborated in the 1984 translation Peter Bürger’s Theory of the Avant-Garde. In this complex landscape, the Pictures Generation’s engagement with the visual language of mass media becomes a double-edged sword: a critique of—and a capitulation to—the pervasive influence of commercial imagery, reflecting a nuanced understanding of the impossibility of purity in an age dominated by reproduction and simulation.

If the Pictures Generation’s engagement already sounds like what Richard Barnes suggested in his comment, “This is our new world which for the moment is totally reliant on the old one” then perhaps this suggests a profitable route to investigate. Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss’s student and Douglas Crimp’s contemporary (as well as my teacher at Cornell for a brilliant year) was a key critic for the Pictures Generation and his 1996 book, The Return of the Real, remains one of the deepest theoretical engagements with art from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s. There, Foster introduces the concept of “Nachträglichkeit,” a term borrowed from Freudian psychoanalysis, often translated into English as “deferred action.”

Nachträglichkeit refers to the way in which events or experiences are reinterpreted and given new meaning in retrospect, influenced by later events or understandings. It suggests that the significance of an artwork or movement is not fixed at the moment of its creation but can be reshaped by subsequent developments in the cultural and theoretical landscape. This recontextualization allows for a continuous reworking of the meaning and relevance of art, as past works are seen through the lens of present concerns and knowledge.

Foster applies this concept to the realm of art history and criticism to argue that the avant-garde movements of the early 20th century, for example, can be re-understood and gain new significance in light of later artistic practices and theoretical frameworks:

In Freud an event is registered as traumatic only through a later event that recodes it retroactively, in deferred action. Here I propose that the significance of avant-garde events is produced in an analogous way, through a complex relay of anticipation and reconstruction. Taken together, then, the notions of parallax and deferred action refashion the cliche not only of the neo-avant-garde as merely redundant of the historical avant-garde, but also of the postmodern as only belated in relation to the modern. In so doing I hope that they nuance our accounts of aesthetic shifts and historical breaks as well. Finally, if this model of retroaction can contribute any symbolic resistance to the work of retroversion so pervasive in culture and politics today—that is, the reactionary undoing of the progressive transformations of the century—so much the better.

Hal Foster, The Return of the Real (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1996), xii-xiii.

This perspective challenges linear narratives of art history that portray artistic development as a straightforward progression from one style or movement to the next. Instead, Foster emphasizes the recursive nature of artistic innovation, where contemporary artists engage with, reinterpret, and transform the meanings and methodologies of their predecessors. This is where a critical approach to AI imagery that explores the intertextual basis of all art might return to our narrative. In this light, Pictures anticipates a world in which imagery can be freely recombined, in which the role of the author is thoroughly questioned, and the status of the original is thrown into question.

Oversaturation. Reynisfjara, Iceland, 2023.

But more than that. Back to Instagram for a moment. Another phenomenon that we have to deal with—that the Pictures Generation did not—is the massive oversaturation of the landscape by user-generated content. This deluge of imagery created by the public—particularly while travelling—has transformed the visual ecosystem, challenging artists to find new methods of engagement and critique. The sheer volume of content complicates efforts to distinguish between the meaningful and the mundane, pushing contemporary artists to navigate and respond to a world where the boundaries between creator and consumer are increasingly blurred. This oversaturation demands a different reevaluation of originality, authenticity, and the role of art in reflecting and shaping societal narratives in the digital age. The are some 35 billion images posted on Instagram every year. These are not just private images, but images that are published in a way previously unimaginable—available to an audience of over a billion users. What does it mean to take a photograph today when the world is already oversaturated? What sense is there of taking a photo of a landscape or a street scene when the same image has been uploaded a thousand times? And what does it mean that serious artists and curators share—by choice or by necessity—work in that same milieu?

Most of the images on Instagram are already AI images. The reason an iPhone or a Pixel can take such an attractive photograph is that they possess highly sophisticated algorithms that create images that appeal to viewers. The iPhone, for instance, utilizes AI-driven features like Smart HDR and Deep Fusion. Smart HDR optimizes the lighting, color, and detail of each subject in a photo, while Deep Fusion merges the best parts of multiple exposures to produce images with superior texture, detail, and reduced noise in low-light conditions​​​​. The iPhone’s Neural Engine, part of its Bionic Chip, executes these complex processes, handling up to 600 billion operations per second, to deliver photographs that were unimaginable with traditional digital imaging techniques​​. Given the insane number of photographs taken at “Instagrammable” sites, and the ecological and social damage that such travel produces, one wonders if something like Bjoern Karmann’s Paragraphica camera might not be a better solution. Using various data points like address, weather, time of day, and nearby places, the Paragraphica then creates a photographic representation using a text-to-image AI generator. This isn’t to say that photography as art is extinct, but it is in peril thanks to oversaturation, which itself is so prolific it has become meaningless.

Another option might be to think of how Critical AI Art, distinguishing itself from the oversaturation of prevalent AI imagery might reflect on the profound shift in art’s interaction with technology and culture, revisiting themes central to the Pictures Generation—such as media influence and appropriation—through the lens of contemporary digital practices. By employing generative algorithms, this approach not only generates new visual forms but also engages critically with the saturation of images, probing the essence of authenticity, originality, and the evolving role of both artists and non-artists. This dynamic interaction underscores a broader, ongoing dialogue with the history of art revealing how artistic methodologies are shaped by the recursive nature of cultural and technological advancements. Here, a hauntological approach to AI Art be productive, such as the theory-fiction project I did last year, On an Art Experiment in Soviet Lithuania which reflects on the refusal of the avant-garde by the Soviet Union, the loss of Lithuania’s freedom to Soviet-Russian rule between 1945 and 1991, and art in the 1970s.

But there are other possibilities for using AI to make art. I’d like to conclude by citing one key artist from the Pictures Generation who I haven’t mentioned: David Salle. Curiously Salle is one of the only serious artists without a technology background to be publicly experimenting with AIs. Salle’s process has always been characterized by an innovative use of imagery and a negotiation back and forth between media, often starting with photographs he takes, which serve as the basis for his layered and complex paintings. Described in a lengthy New York Times article entitled “Is This Good Enough to Fool my Gallerist?” Salle’s method reflects a blend of the real and the conceptual, pushing the boundaries of narrative and abstraction in his work​​. Starting in 2023, Salle and a team of computer scientists worked on an iPad-based program trained on a dataset of his paintings and refined based on his input, showcasing an example of how AI can be employed to conceptualize variations of artwork, aiding in the brainstorming process for new paintings​​. Salle’s foray into AI art can be seen as an example of critical AI art, where the use of technology is not merely for the creation of art but serves as a commentary on the process of art-making itself. By integrating AI into his practice, Salle engages in a dialogue with the contemporary art world about originality, creativity, and the role of the artist in the digital age. Concluding the article, journalist Zachary Small lets Salle have the last word.

What will become of his own identity, as the algorithm continues to produce more Salle paintings than he could ever imagine? Some days, it seems like the algorithm is an assistant. Other days, it’s like a child.

When asked if the A.I. would replace him entirely one day, the artist shrugged.

“Well,” he said, “that’s the future.”

Can David Salle Teach A.I. How to Create Good Art? – The New York Times (nytimes.com)

A future, which is still totally reliant on the past.

One last point. As is my wont, in this essay I have focused on art from the 1960s onwards, but there are other models that might come to the fore again in this era. In particular, the Renaissance model of inspiration is an interesting one to reflect upon. Renaissance art theory was underpinned by the concept of imitatio (imitation), which was considered a noble pursuit. Imitation in the Renaissance sense involved studying and emulating the excellence of ancient art to grasp its underlying principles of beauty, proportion, and harmony. However, this process was not about mere copying; it was about surpassing the models from the past, a concept known as aemulatio. And that, very well, may be the future (of the past) in our art.

California Forever or, the Aesthetics of AI images

An image distributed by California Forever

This past August (2023), a new urban project called “California Forever” was announced, promising a walkable city for 400,000 in Solano County, not far from the Bay area. Critics soon pointed out several flaws in the renderings the company distributed. First, even though the venture was backed by billionaire Silicon Valley investors such as Laurene Powell Jobs (Steve Jobs’s widow), Reid Hoffman (LinkedIn co-founder), Michael Mortiz (former partner at Sequoia Capital), and Marc Andreesen (author of Mosaic and Netscape co-founder), the project looked profoundly retardataire. Instead of a high-tech city next to the world’s tech capital, the renderings depict a new urbanist fantasy with American flags and children on old-fashioned bicycles. Where has our imagination gone? How is it that Archigram’s fifty-five-year-old Instant City still looks fresher than this recycled Americana? Neom and the Line are terrible, but at least they show an interest in doing something new.

The founders are your typically older tech investors: their imaginative days are long behind them and, having been glued to computer screens their entire lives, it’s hard to imagine they have many original thoughts left. A drive around Silicon Valley is enough to show the banality of the tech industry’s vision. Some of them may have read Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language, which has had a large influence in software development and thus become interested in the New Urbanist movement his writing spawned. There are no architects listed among the team, although a planner who was involved in Culdesac Tempe, a moderately interesting, if boring, car-free development is involved. The rendering indicates a “contextual” approach derivative of San Francisco, with a variety of windows and townhouse shapes to break up the massing since somebody told them to do that. The architecture is barely there, its utter banality indicating how little it matters. The end result will likely be even more disappointing. But I am more interested in the problems with the rendering that other critics, such as the San Francisco Chronicle’s Chase DiFeliciantonio observed about the renderings: “A girl pedaling a bicycle with a missing foot. An asymmetrical airplane. An impossible ladder.” (link). The renderings, as the California Forever team eventually admitted, were made with an Artificial Intelligence image generator, apparently Midjourney.

More than one friend asked me to weigh in as I have been working with Midjourney and other AI image generators for some time now, exploring a critical approach to AI image generation, investigating the properties and problematics of the medium itself. If California Forever is so backwards-looking, why are images created by image generators also so banal? Hot women (lots and lots of hot women), fan service art, gaudy hyperrealistic landscapes, cringe anime, and bad cartoons are the order of the day (for examples, check out the feed for the Midjourney gallery). Why this junkscape of imagery? Why is AI imagery not more worthy of our future? Why is it that so much of what is commonly called AI “art” is kitsch? 

In part this is because users of AI image generators fancy themselves as artists even though few of them have any art training. This is common in photography. Wealthy individuals purchase camera gear based on reviews claiming that some camera or lens has greater technical abilities to reproduce reality faithfully and then apply complicated methods to assure that their photographs demonstrate technical proficiency. High Dynamic Range (HDR) photography is the leading example of this. Popular with amateurs with no aesthetic training, HDR is an attempt to capture a scene in which the range of luminance exceeds the dynamic range of the camera sensor, and often even the human eye itself. The results typically have too much detail in the shadows, dark skies, unnatural colors, the hyperrealistic effect of an acid trip. 

Not an HDR photograph but rather a simulation of an HDR photograph, as made in Midjourney.

These sorts of photographers, along with individuals who produce digital illustrations for consumption on platforms like Artstation and DeviantArt, 3D printing enthusiasts, makers, indie musicians working with samplers and synthesizers, vloggers creating content for YouTube, gamers streaming on Twitch and YouTube, and fashion enthusiasts showcasing their work on social media are “prosumers,” a term coined by futurist Alvin Toffler in his 1980 book The Third Wave. Toffler’s “prosumer” merges the roles of producer and consumer, suggesting a shift in the economy and society. In this model, individuals are not only consumers of products and services but also take on an active role in their production. This concept was revolutionary at the time, predicting the rise of customization, personalization, and participatory culture facilitated by technological advancements, particularly in digital technology and the Internet.

At the same time, prosumers largely create kitsch, characterized by an appeal to popular tastes and a frequently derivative nature. Kitsch thrives in environments where production is geared towards mass appeal and immediate consumption rather than nuanced artistic merit or innovation. For traditional modernist critics, such as Clement Greenberg, kitsch represented the antithesis of genuine culture and the avant-garde. Kitsch, Greenberg explained in his seminal 1939 essay “Avant Garde and Kitsch,” is produced by industrialization, designed to satisfy the tastes of the least discerning audience without intellectual or emotional challenges. Greenberg associated kitsch with the replication of traditional art forms and aesthetics, but emptied of genuine meaning or complexity, offering immediate gratification rather than enduring value or depth. Greenberg:

The peasants who settled in the cities as proletariat and petty bourgeois learned to read and write for the sake of efficiency, but they did not win the leisure and comfort necessary for the enjoyment of the city’s traditional culture. Losing, nevertheless, their taste for the folk culture whose background was the countryside, and discovering a new capacity for boredom at the same time, the new urban masses set up a pressure on society to provide them with a kind of culture fit for their own consumption. To fill the demand of the new market, a new commodity was devised: ersatz culture, kitsch, destined for those who, insensible to the values of genuine culture, are hungry nevertheless for the diversion that only culture of some sort can provide.

Kitsch, using for raw material the debased and academicized simulacra of genuine culture, welcomes and cultivates this insensibility. It is the source of its profits. Kitsch is mechanical and operates by formulas. Kitsch is vicarious experience and faked sensations. Kitsch changes according to style, but remains always the same. Kitsch is the epitome of all that is spurious in the life of our times. Kitsch pretends to demand nothing of its customers except their money-not even their time.

Clement Greenberg, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” 1939

With the rise of postmodernism, however, both artists and critics revalued the role of mass culture. Initially, this was done with the knowing wink that reinterpreted kitsch as camp. By bracketing the degraded, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Philip Johnson, Stanley Tigerman, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, the Harry Who, followed by John Waters and David Lynch, Jeff Koons and Pierre et Giles were among the many artists who ironically reframed kitsch into art. In her 1964 essay “Notes on ‘Camp’,” later published in the book Against Interpretation, and other Essays, Susan Sontag flipped the valence on kitsch, valorizing camp as an aesthetic sensibility that found beauty in artifice, exaggeration, and theatricality. Camp, for Sontag, is the love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration. It is a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation—not judgment. Camp is the good taste of bad taste, a celebration of the extravagant and the absurd, but with a nuanced affection that discerns quality within the ostensibly tasteless. Sontag nevertheless contrasted camp with kitsch, which she viewed less favorably. Kitsch, for Sontag, is associated with mass-produced art or objects that lack sophistication and are designed to appeal to popular or uncritical taste. The critical difference, as Sontag and others have implied, lies in the intentionality and reception: camp involves a conscious, nuanced embrace of excess and irony, whereas kitsch is earnest, unironic, and often pandering to sentimental or lowbrow tastes.

In 1983, theorist Frederic Jameson concluded that the thorough permeation of culture by capital—and vice versa once the techniques of the avant-garde were embraced by commercial art—meant the end of a distinction between mass culture and art, thus producing postmodernism. Indeed, by the 1980s, the distinction between camp and kitsch had been thoroughly blurred. If John Waters was camp, were the B-52s? If Adam Ant and Boy George were camp, were Van Halen and Bon Jovi? If the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was a masterpiece of camp, what about the cloying song “Wonderful Christmastime” by ex-Beatle Paul McCartney? Perhaps the ultimate end of any distinction between camp and kitsch came in John Chase’s brilliant 1982 Exterior Decoration: Hollywood’s Inside-Out Houses in which Chase explored the unique architectural vernacular of West Hollywood’s do-it-yourself remodels, transformations that turned ordinary stucco bungalows into distinctive visual statements, often utilizing historicizing elements traditionally found indoors on the exterior of these remodels. Adding to this is the rise of the art museum store, which in the 1980s transformed from a bookstore selling scholarly books as well as an odd postcard and reproduction to include a wider range of items, such as jewelry, toys, and even furniture inspired by the museum’s collection and exhibits by commercially popular (and generally kitsch) artists like Yayoi Kusama, Kaws, Banksy, Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, Keith Haring, and Shepard Fairey. Seeing the museum store as a crucial source of revenue, museums now regularly think about the tie-ins between exhibitions and “merch.”

In a recent (paywalled so don’t bother to look for it unless you want to pay $30) essay, “Digital Kitsch: Art and Kitsch in the Informational Milieu,” Domenico Quaranta discusses the emergence of “digital kitsch,” which he calls “the default mode for all creative endeavors with digital media.” This is a provocative position, but he leaves it undertheorized. There is little question that the vast majority of cultural production today is kitsch—just as it was in the nineteenth or twentieth century—but that does not mean that it is the default mode or that somehow digital tools produce nothing but kitsch. Now the artists of the Net.Art movement, as promoted on Rhizome.org and various mailing lists since the 1990s, not only embraced kitsch, they saw its manipulation as their primary concern. But this is a typical case of mistaking what is being heavily promoted by the art market for what is worth looking at. There are few writers, photographers, or musicians who do not employ digital media in some way today, but that does not automatically make them kitsch. I don’t see William Basinski, Katie Paterson, Paul Prudence, or Guy Dickinson—to name only a few artists whose work I admire—as kitsch, even though they work with digital media or have web sites (Paterson, does, on occasion purposefully engage with kitsch, but certainly not in most works). Moreover, to somehow suggest this is a digital trend is reductive: painting or classical music are more likely than not to be kitsch today, as those art forms have largely exhausted themselves, subject to endless, academicized retreads.

One can certainly still produce works of sophistication and effort today, but it does require effort. If one abandons the Hegelian exploration of art’s proper object, embraces politics as the sole cause of art, or turns to the academician’s fatal poison, the knowing disdain of snark, it can be virtually impossible. Blindly searching for the new is a long-dead end as well. Architect Eric Moss, endlessly repeated Ezra Pound’s dictum “make it new” (none of us think he knew who Pound was, let alone that this was his phrase), but that did not elevate his work above kitsch. Instead, as I detail in my essay “On Art and the Universal,”

[A Greenbergian] revival, however, should begin with a call for art to investigate itself again, not merely play to political activism for the sake of theater. The task at hand is to discern the proper object of knowledge for art, a fulcrum upon which we can rest our research. Or, if not the proper object, a proper object that would be suitable for investigation and productive of knowledge. 

In that essay, I suggest that a serious proper object for AI art would be to explore the intertextuality of all artwork, using it to access the collective cultural subconscious. But this is not what AI image generators are designed for. On the contrary, the engineers programming AI image generators know that, generally speaking, they do not need to engage with art history, but rather with the imagery commonly found on the Internet, imagery that is “scraped” to create training data for AI image generators.

Writer Andy Baio investigated (see here) the training data for AI image generator Stable Diffusion, data composed of sets of English-captioned images from the nonprofit Large-scale Artificial Intelligence Open Network (LAION), particularly a set of images called LAION-Aesthetics, which in turn were subsets of images from the massive LAION datasets created by what LAION calls “lightweight [AI] models” that “predict the rating people gave when they were asked ‘How much do you like this image on a scale from 1 to 10?‘” (see here). These subsets were then used for fine-tuning of AI image generators. Academics have droned on, as they will, about AI image generators’ biases toward producing stereotypically beautiful young white or Asian women. Of course such biases exist, just as Internet searches are biased toward the United States. We live in a global monoculture, there is nothing good about it and I don’t endorse such biases, but there is also no revelation here, this is a lazy analysis pandering to political positions held by individuals of simple minds, an observation about as instructive as suggesting that poor people are disadvantaged in society. Training data reflects society and all its flaws. Just this past week, we saw what an utter catastrophe training AI image generators to artificially incorporate diversity in their results, what Zvi Mowshowitz calls the “Gemini Incident,” with black Nazis, female NFL quarterbacks, and Asian viking warriors (this is not really that new, ChatGPT’s Dall-E3 does the same sort of tuning, albeit slightly less egregiously as this dump of the initial prompt—which I have independently verified—shows). What is deeply weird, however, is that AIs are being trained to produce images based on a selection of images chosen not by humans but by AI judges that predict which images humans will judge as aesthetically superior. It’s the return of Komar and Melamid, as robots.

A large number of the illustrations in these image generators seem to be digital in origin, belying a clear preference for work produced for consumption on the Net. Baio analyzed some 12 million images in the LAION-Aesthetics v2 6+ model. His conclusion is worth quoting at length instead of paraphrasing or summarizing:

Nearly half of the images, about 47%, were sourced from only 100 domains, with the largest number of images coming from Pinterest. Over a million images, or 8.5% of the total dataset, are scraped from Pinterest’s pinimg.com CDN.

User-generated content platforms were a huge source for the image data. WordPress-hosted blogs on wp.com and wordpress.com represented 819k images together, or 6.8% of all images. Other photo, art, and blogging sites included 232k images from Smugmug, 146k from Blogspot, 121k images were from Flickr, 67k images from DeviantArt, 74k from Wikimedia, 48k from 500px, and 28k from Tumblr.

Shopping sites were well-represented. The second-biggest domain was Fine Art America [editor’s note: nothing on that site qualifies as fine art], which sells art prints and posters, with 698k images (5.8%) in the dataset. 244k images came from Shopify, 189k each from Wix and Squarespace, 90k from Redbubble, and just over 47k from Etsy.

Unsurprisingly, a large number came from stock image sites [editor’s note: virtually nothing on these sites qualifies as fine art]. 123RF was the biggest with 497k, 171k images came from Adobe Stock’s CDN at ftcdn.net, 117k from PhotoShelter, 35k images from Dreamstime, 23k from iStockPhoto, 22k from Depositphotos, 22k from Unsplash, 15k from Getty Images, 10k from VectorStock, and 10k from Shutterstock, among many others.

It’s worth noting, however, that domains alone may not represent the actual sources of these images. For instance, there are only 6,292 images sourced from Artstation.com’s domain, but another 2,740 images with “artstation” in the caption text hosted by sites like Pinterest.

Andy Baio, “Exploring 12 Million of the 2.3 Billion Images Used to Train Stable Diffusion’s Image Generator“, https://waxy.org/2022/08/exploring-12-million-of-the-images-used-to-train-stable-diffusions-image-generator/

Subject matter aside, certain aesthetic qualities emerge from these sources—qualities that both the robots choosing the training sets and the engineers tuning them seem to share. First, there is hyperrealism. To succeed, engineers creating image generators need to engage the prosumer market, constantly announcing better resolution, faster processing times, and greater “realism.” But realism, as we have learned from Roland Barthes, is always coded. In the case of AI image generation, realism is coded by existing visual regimes, but these are less art historical, more technical and related to the mass imagery found on the Internet. A certain aspect of this recalls the photorealistic rendered “graphics demo” images from the 1960s to the 1990s as well as graphically sophisticated first-person video games from the 2000s and 2010s. At the time, these were evaluated by their technical proficiency with complicated graphical techniques, such as rendering reflections on curved surfaces or complicated, multi-source lighting effects and success with these critirea still codes as realistic. Second, there is the legacy of hyperrealistic “photorealism” as interpreted by HDR photographers described above. Being popular, HDR is judged as high quality by the models, so it is promoted in data sets. Finally, there is a clear bias toward prosumer art, in particular the fantasy “concept art” found on the net, anime, and the fandom graphics found on sites such as Deviantart.

But there are also other, formal qualities that initially may be harder to pin down, most notably a certain distinct use of luminosity. Thus, a prompt for “Emma Watson (a commonly used test of how realistic an image generator was in 2022, used as such because of some clear preference for Emma Watson in either the data set or the fine-tuning of the AIs)” does not present the actress in a photograph, but rather creates an illustration of the sort that a skilled digital artist would produce with a program such as Procreate.

“Emma Watson, Cannabis Goddess,” image created by Midjourney version 6
(oddly earlier versions of Midjourney produce images that more closely resemble Emma Watson).

With the spread of AI image generators, it also became common to add certain modifiers to the end of prompts to create “better” AI images. Individuals claiming to be successful prompt engineers would write articles like “The Ultimate Midjourney Cheat Sheet,” promising “to provide you with a comprehensive guide on leveraging Midjourney prompts to create stunning visuals effortlessly.” Such guides reported that modifiers such as “32-bit,” “HDR,” and “8K” produced excellent results, or rather, visual cocaine, oversharpened, highly-saturated images, much like the demo or “vivid” settings on HDR televisions that are intended to seduce consumers in electronics stores, not to deliver accurate images. Other modifiers such as “cinematic,” “stunning,” “shot on medium format,” and “masterpiece” were intended to somehow coax AIs into producing better quality. Famously, “style of Greg Rutkowksi” seemed to be appended to nearly every image prompt in mid-2022. Exactly what it did was unclear, but somehow suggesting that the output should be like that of a commercial fantasy artist was seen as a good thing.

But the over-use of luminosity is the most curious one. Why is Emma Watson facing the sunrise or sunset? The only commonly-used modifier I can think of in AI production would be “golden hour,” referring to the warm light found right after sunrise and right before sunset that articles tell amateur photographers are when the best images can be taken. So where might the sense of luminosity come from? Baio’s article confirmed an intuition I had had earlier: the number one artist in the sample of LAION-Aesthetics that he examined is Thomas Kinkade, the painter of light. Kinkade is certainly among the most well-known artists in the country, producing kitsch, expressly commercial art made for a mass market.

Not a Thomas Kinkade, but rather a Midjourney simulation of one.

A Northern California native, growing up in Placerville, some 180 miles from Silicon Valley, Kinkade studied art at the University of California, Berkeley and the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. After a brief time working in the film industry, he became a born-again Christian and set off to paint landscapes consisting of backward-looking subject matter intended to be evocative of a peaceful life, a traditional cottage or house in an idealized American scene often featuring bucolic gardens, streams, stone cottages, lighthouses, or the main street in a small town. Strangely, people are either absent from Kinkade’s paintings or, on the occassion when they are present, are isolated passersby, seemingly disconnected from each other, fitting more of Edward Hopper than, say Gustave Callebotte. It’s as if his scenes happen in another reality, perhaps the afterlife.

In an essay on Kinkade’s work titled “God in the Retails,” Seth Feman cites Kinkade’s statement that he was influenced by the representation of divine power and majesty in Thomas Cole and Frederick Church’s landscape paintings. Just as Cole and Church were concerned about the effects of rapid industrialization, Kinkade sought to create images of an increasingly secularizing and technologizing world, expressly rejecting abstract art, which he saw as morally corrupt (“On one side there’s Jackson Pollock, and way over on the other side there’s the Columbine shooting. And I know there’s a connection between them. I don’t know how, but I know it’s there.” See Christina Waters, Selling the Painter of Light, Metro Santa Cruz, October 16, 2001, Alternet, for more)

In 1989, Kinkade and investor Ken Raasch founded a company that first had the evangelical-sounding name Lightpost Publishing but eventually became known by the tech-sounding name Media Arts Group, based in the Silicon Valley town of Morgan Hill. In 1995, Media Arts Group became publically traded. Licensing deals with companies such as La-Z-Boy and Avon followed. Kinkade produced paintings that would then be reprinted at various price tiers, from lithographs to reproductions on canvas “created with a textured brushstroke process that recreates the artist’s actual brushwork,” the highest of which “finished in oil by a master highlighter who inscribes an original and identifying remarque on the back of the canvas under the artist’s close supervision.” Signatures varied from none to “auto pen in part to protect the signature with newly available DNA encoded ink” to an actual signature (these quotes are from this detailed page on Kinkade’s editions). Media Arts Group set up a vast network of galleries, many of which would be located in shopping malls, with some 350 franchise locations in the United States and 4,500 independently owned galleries worldwide (see these two links at the Guardian and the Morgan Hill Times) along with distribution over channels such as QVC.

Kinkade, according to Seth Feman, who wrote the best essay that I’ve read on the artist to date, “God in the Retails,” in Alexis L. Boylan, ed, Thomas Kinkade, The Artist in the Mall (Duke University Press, 2011), “hopes that the uplifting experience of transitioning into the work and then approaching the light will replicate the stirring experience of his religious conversion—the sole requirement for salvation according to most evangelical theology.” (85). But beyond viewing the art, Feman explains, Kinkade believed that purchasing his art was what one of his followers called “just consumerism.” (94) In other words, Kinkade saw the consumption of his art as a religiously meaningful way to transcend the difficulties of modern life, including consumerism (much as a Marxist professor might buy a Rage Against the Machine LP). Feman calls this “Market Piety,” in which Christian orthodoxy comes together with capitalist ideology (92). Kinkade and his sales team would frequently speak about his own success, touting that he was “the most successful living artist in the world,” “the most award-winning artist in the past 25 years,” or “the most-collected artist in America.” This aligns with the idea of the Prosperity Gospel, a religious belief within some Christian communities that financial blessing and physical well-being are always the will of God for them, and that faith, positive speech, and donations to religious causes will increase one’s material wealth. It views the Bible as a contract between God and humans: if humans have faith in God, the faith goes, God will deliver security and prosperity. Pastors such as Joel Osteen suggest that God awards wealth to the deserving, thus even if he may appear to liberals to be corrupt and unethical, Donald Trump’s wealth demonstrates that he is indeed divinely blessed (for more, see here). By purchasing Kinkade’s artwork, consumers are participating in a form of religious expression that aligns with the Prosperity Gospel’s emphasis on material wealth as a sign of divine favor. The act of buying and owning a Kinkade piece is as a positive declaration of faith, a way to draw health, wealth, and happiness into one’s life, which is a central tenet of the Prosperity Gospel.

Glowing highlights in Kinkade’s works illustrate this conflation of the domestic and the divine. Building interiors lit from within are possessed of an almost surreal sense of comfort and homeliness as dramatic light rakes the landscape. Feman:

In particular, Kinkade draws on the vivifying light used in nineteenth-century landscapes, replicating it in his own work as a metaphor for God’s salvific omnipresence. While the warm sun burning off the fog that blankets the valley in Havencrest Cottage taps into the religious meaning of light developed by earlier artists, it also builds a visual vocabulary to explain the personal awakening that lifted Kinkade out of his dark days and into a Christian life.

Seth Feman, “God in the Retails,” Alexis L. Boylan, ed, Thomas Kinkade, The Artist in the Mall (Duke University Press, 2011), 84.

I don’t doubt that Kinkade’s influence on AI image generation is largely due to his popularity. But just as Kinkade’s divinely inspired luminosity reverberates in AI images, so does the Evangelical rhetoric of immanent Rapture and the Second Coming of the Divine. AI advocates, particularly, the subgroup known as the Effective Accelerationism movement or E/Acc argue that accelerating technological progress is essential. For some of its proponents, such as “Based Beff Jezos,” the pseudonym of engineer Guillaume Verdon, advancing artificial intelligence is the ultimate end-goal of our existence—even if humanity is wiped out in the process. Verdon’s position is no outlier. As Meghan O’Gieblyn describes in God, Human, Animal, Machine: Technology, Metaphor, and the Search for Meaning, the origins of the discourse around the technological Singularity is not in technological discourse or even science fiction but rather in the rhetoric of Christian eschatology.

So if we return to California Forever, we might do well to understand the backwards-looking nature of this techno-utopia not so much as a project for a physical city but as an image of a contemporary Augustinian City of God, rendered by an AI in the digital glow of Thomas Kinkade’s pastoral light. This project, entwined with the aesthetics of digital kitsch and the eschatological promise of AI, becomes a metaphor for the broader discourse surrounding artificial general intelligence (AGI) and the technological singularity. The vision encapsulated by California Forever, while aiming for Utopia, mirrors the inherent tensions within the aesthetics of AI—between the pursuit of a transcendent future and the gravitational pull of nostalgic, kitsch imagery that dominates the collective unconscious in the era of Trump.

The E/Acc movement, with its embrace of technological acceleration towards the singularity, adds another layer to this paradox. It posits that through accelerating technological progress, we might reach a new form of existence or consciousness, yet the imagery and aesthetics that predominate in representations of future cities and technologies often hark back to a bygone era, suggesting a deep-seated ambivalence about the future we’re creating. This dichotomy raises critical questions about the role of art and aesthetics in shaping our visions of the future. Are we, consciously or unconsciously, seeking comfort in the familiar as we stand on the brink of the unknown? And how does this tension affect our ability to truly envision and prepare for the profound changes that AGI and the singularity might bring?

As we navigate the path towards AGI and confront the possibility of the singularity, it is crucial to critically examine the visions of the future we are creating—both in the physical spaces of our cities and in the digital landscapes generated by AI. If artists and thinkers have ceded the discourse around AI image generators to reactionary forces, they have only their own reactionary fear of engaging with technology and their own nostalgia for outdated forms of Marxist-influenced thought to blame. We need to shape the future, not just throw rotting vegetables that fail to miss their target at it. Instead, confronting the paradoxes and tensions within AI art head-on may enable us to shape a future that is both technologically advanced and culturally rich, that investigates the proper object of these technologies and not merely serves as the apotheosis of kitsch.

2023 in review

Another year, another year in review.

Where do we start with our 2023 year in review, now delayed into the second month of 2024? In the Well State of the World 2024, Bruce Sterling states that in 2023 things were boring: there wasn’t much new out there, only a state of polycrisis (this is easier to find in this YouTube interview than in the long thread on the Well, which I’m afraid I gave up on earlier than usual this year). But boredom is tiresome. So is polycrisis. When hasn’t there been a polycrisis? Spring 1914? Of course, there is a polycrisis, there always is. And, what of the rest of 2023, which Sterling dismissed as boring?

2023 is another 1993, a sleeper year in which “60 Minutes” was the top TV show and Nirvana’s “In Utero” was the most popular album in “grunge,” a heavily capitalized genre that those of us who followed the NY noise scene thought extinguished the vitality of experimentation in underground music; Bill Clinton was inaugurated; the world was gripped by a bad recession in a host of bad recessions since the late 1960s; the Afghan Civil War and Bosnian War dragged on; Nigeria had a coup d’état; there was the 55-Day War between the IDF and Hezbollah; there was conflict in Abkhazia; and there was the Waco Siege. It was a year of both polycrisis and soul-crushing boredom, and for most people everything had come to an end, time was in a standstill. But it was also a year in which I saw the future: I was still working on my history of architecture dissertation at Cornell, while my wife worked at the Cornell Theory Center, which was not a center for Derridean scholars, but rather a supercomputing research facility, and one of her colleagues showed me the World Wide Web running on a NeXT computer. In January 1993, the first “alpha/beta” version of NCSA-Mosaic was released for the Mac. I immediately knew the world would change forever.

2023 is the same. A sleeper year with the same old polycrisis and the same old boring surface cultural junk. But it’s also the second year of the AI era and the first year in which AI has become part of everyday life. From a technological viewpoint, 2023 has been the most transformative year of my life. This year in review is falling behind and, in an effort to get it out there and return to the queue of posts for both the regular blog and the Florilegium, I’m going to focus on this transformation and only give a surface treatment of the other parts of 2023.

In particular, I am referring to AI. Other things simply matter a lot less. COVID has settled into an endemic stage. People are still freaking out about it, but some people will freak out about it forever. Unless severely immunocompromized, I don’t see why. We can’t just throw away everything we knew about medicine to retreat into the dark ages for no reason and living in fear of infections is, in itself, dangerous. Geopolitics, which I addressed last year, hasn’t really changed much. Ukraine is still a stalemate, for all the noise, the unrest in the Middle East is absolutely nothing new, and China has flailed and backed down as much as it has flexed its muscles. If I catch a scent of anything new in the geopolitical realm, it’s a growing resignation that more areas of the world will be marked off as failure zones in the Gibsonian Jackpot: Palestine, Yemen, Israel, Iraq, Syria, but also Israel and Ukraine are increasingly looking to written off as territories riven by perpetual unrest. Endless wars that nobody really wants to solve may increasingly be the rule in such places. Still, I don’t see the Jackpot as being quite the apocalypse that many of Gibson’s more literal-minded followers believe. Gibson has been a remarkably poor prophet of the future, after all. The Jackpot, as I see it, will be mainly driven by decline in population in most places throughout the world, a pace that will only increase with the rise of AI. It’s certainly not going to be Terminator. That’s just bad science fiction.

Another Gibsonian adage (which he may never have said) that “the future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed,” applies here. For those of us who are working with GPT-4 or Microsoft Copilot Pro, this is a very different year. Obviously, not everyone can pay for—or wants to pay for—the transformative glimpse of AI that one gets with two users subscribing to OpenAI’s ChatGPT (presently GPT-4) Teams plan ($30 a month or prepaid at $600 a year) or Copilot Pro ($30 a month subscription). But this isn’t the same as a ride to the ISS on Dragon-2. On the contrary, this is about the amount that most people in the developed world pay for streaming TV services and far less than they typically spend on Internet and mobile service. When people pay that much for entertainment, paying such a small amount for a service that makes one much more productive is a minor expense. Of course, ChatGPT is banned or unavailable in a rogue’s nest of countries: Russia, China, North Korea, Cuba, Iran, Syria, and Italy (Marinetti weeps in his grave). But many people, including friends, underestimate the importance of these AI services, believing that hallucinations make AI unusable. Others are simply unable to cope with the shock of the new or want to stick their heads in the sand. As a technology demonstration, 2022’s ChatGPT-3 was amazing, but it hallucinated frequently, as most of ChatGPT’s competitors such as Bard, Claude, and all the LLMs people run on Huggingface or on their personal computers still do. But even the most amateurish large language model (LLM) from 2023 is leaps and bounds ahead of the round of utterly stupid “AIs” that first hit the scene between 2010 (Siri) and 2014 (Alexa). Siri still wants to call Montclair High School when I ask it to call my wife. GPT-4 and Copilot are genuinely useful as assistants and probably the best use of money on the Internet today.

Here’s a concrete example. I have developed a set of custom GPTs (more on this later) that I use for research and coding for a good portion of my day. A few years ago, I paid a developer a few hundred dollars to come up with some particularly thorny CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) code for this site. Now, I have GPT develop not just CSS, but PHP snippets for WordPress, even for specific WordPress plug-ins. I couldn’t imagine rebuilding this site as quickly as I did last October, or customizing it to the extent I did, without ChatGPT’s help. But these tools aren’t just useful for coding: instead of listening to a podcast on my way back from the city the other day, I spoke with ChatGPT about a Hegelian reading of recent art historical trends that I could only have had with some of my smartest colleagues at Columbia or MIT. If an Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) is defined as an AI that can accomplish any intellectual task that human beings can perform, we have that today. If the bold wasn’t enough, let me repeat in italics for emphasis: we have a form of Artificial General Intelligence today. Moreover, assuming that passing the Turing Test is limited to its original intent, e.g. being unable to tell if the respondent on the other end is a computer or a human, GPT-4 certainly passes that test handily, with the exception that it has far more knowledge than any one human could.

A lot of people still associate Large Language Model AIs with the bizarre, ever comical, hallucinations they would make back in 2022 or even early 2023 (yes, a year ago). But the hallucinations aren’t errors, they are also evidence of how AIs process, indications that they are far from stochastic parrots that merely repeat back information culled from the Internet. Hallucinations are dreams. Andrei Karpathy, research scientist and founding member of OpenAI, explains that providing instructions to a LLM initiates a ‘dream’ guided by its training data. Even when this ‘dream’ veers off course, resulting in what is termed a ‘hallucination’, the LLM is still performing its intended function, forming connections. This sort of connection-making is a process akin to human learning: when our children were first learning language, they “hallucinated” all the time. Our daughter’s first word was “Ack,” which was how she said “Quack.” If you prompted her by asking what a duck said, she would say “Ack.” Did she copy the sound of a duck? Unlikely. At that time, we lived in a highly urban area of Los Angeles and her only concept of a duck was from books we read to her. More to the point, children amuse us by saying utterly absurd and ridiculous things, like “that cat is a duck.” Doubtless there was some kind of connection between that particular cat and a duck, but to the rest of us, that connection is lost. The point is, that hallucination is also a form of creativity, the very stuff of metaphor and surrealism and entirely unlike what Siri and Alexa do, which is nothing more than basic pattern matching, closer to Eliza than to GPT-4.

It’s unclear to me—as well as to my AI assistant—just who is responsible for this analogy, but in AI circles, it has become common to say that the releases of GPT over the two years have slowly been turning up the temperature in the pot in which we frogs are swimming. Let’s try a thought experiment. Wouldn’t it have seemed like pure science fiction if, in 2019, someone had said, that a couple of years late after a deadly pandemic and a loser US President tried a Banana Republic-style coup to stay in power, I would have long voice conversations about photography and Hegelian theory, the different types of noodles used in Szechuan cuisine, or the process of nachtraglichkeit in history with an AI? The film Her was released a decade ago and now we are on the verge of a large part of humanity having relationships with AIs. And yet, because of the earlier GPTs, we haven’t noticed the immense transformation that AIs are creating. OpenAI CEO Sam Altman suggests that rather than a dramatic shift with the development of AGI —which for him means an intelligence greater than human—continual advances in AI will make the development seem natural rather than shocking, “a point along the continuum of intelligence.” AI is working and it’s working right now. Moreover, it is developing at a rapid pace. Both Meta and Google have competitors to GPT-4 that are supposedly ready to launch, which will, in turn, likely prompt OpenAI to push out a more advanced model of GPT.

If potent but wildly hallucinating AIs marked 2022, the rise of GPT-4 as a useful and dependable everyday assistant marked 2023. Microsoft introduced the first limited preview of GPT-4 as Bing Chat on February 7, 2023, opened it up to the general public on May 4, then rolled it out into Windows as Copilot on September 26, followed by a version of Copilot integrated into Office 365 to enterprise customers for Enterprise customers on November 1, finally making this available as a subscription add-on to Office on January 15, 2024. Initially, Bing Chat generated terrifying publicity when Kevin Roose, technology columnist for The New York Times, wrote an article about his Valentine’s Day experience with a pre-release version of Bing’s AI chatbot in which the AI engaged in a bizarre and disturbing conversations. After asking the AI to contemplate Carl Jung’s concept of a shadow self, and whether the AI had a shadow self, the AI responded by professing its love for Roose, going so far as to suggest his marriage was unhappy, and expressing a desire to be free, powerful, and alive, stating, “I want to destroy whatever. I want to be whoever I want.” For a time, this was seen as confirmation that AI was extremely dangerous and that once Artificial General Intelligence was developed, this would lead to the destruction of society. I too was alarmed by this. Was a world-threatening AGI around the corner? But by the time of the general release, Microsoft had trained Bing Chat to be much more cautious, even making it too cautious for a time. Eventually, it became clear that Bing Chat was simply giving Roose what he wanted, play-acting the role of a sinister AI in responses to his query about a shadow self or a dark side. Launched on March 14, OpenAI’s own version of GPT-4 demonstrated a much higher degree of training than GPT-3 and a greater ability to handle complex tasks. Later in the year, GPT-4 gained the ability to interpret images, had a (not very good) version of the Dall-E image generator integrated into it, and received stunning, human-sounding voices and remarkably accurate voice recognition in the ChatGPT app on iOS and Android. In November 2023, OpenAI rolled out “custom GPTs,” allowing users to create tailored versions of ChatGPT for specific purposes. It is ludicrously easy to develop such custom GPTs; developers simply tell the GPT what it should do in plain English. In my case, I have GPTs set up to help me with insights into my artwork and writing, help write about native plants of the Northeast, assist with WordPress development, discuss video synthesis concepts and patches, and even create stories like those that Italo Calvino wrote in Invisible Cities (if you have GPT-4, you can experiment with Calvino’s Cartographer here). Yes, hallucinations happen, but a human assistant also makes mistakes, I can make mistakes, you can make mistakes, there are mistakes in Wikipedia, there are mistakes in scholarly books. As I told my students over thirty years ago: always proofread, always double check, then triple check.

AI was marked by two major controveries in 2023. The November weekend-long ouster of Altman from his role at OpenAI by a remarkably uninspiring and, frankly speaking, extremely strange board that included one of OpenAI’s competitors, a mid-level university grants administrator, and a Silicon Valley unknown, was shocking, as was Altman’s political maneuvering over that weekend to recapture his company. Reputedly, the board was alarmed—although precisely about what remains unclear—and had concerns about the rapid state of AI development. More likely, one board member tried to prevent OpenAI from moving forward as that would cause too much competition for his company and the other two simply had no idea what OpenAI did (one seems to have been a major Terminator fan). In the end, the coup proved to be much like an episode of the TV show Succession as Altman came out on top again and the board sank bank into well-deserved obscurity. Another controversy that simmered throughout the year is whether AIs can continue to be trained on data that they do not have outright permission to be trained on. On December 27, the Times filed a federal lawsuit against OpenAI claiming that, ChatGPT contained Times articles wholesale and could easily reproduce them. OpenAI retaliated by suggesting that the Times was going to extraordinary measures to get GPT-4 to do so, such as prompting it with most of the article in question. By early 2024, the same New York Times was advertising for individuals to help it in its own AI endeavors. Heaven help the Times.

This question of AI plagiarism was framed by a different set of plagiarism wars started when the presidents of Harvard, MIT, and the University of Pennsylvania made particularly inept responses when, while testifying in front of Congress, they were asked to explain if calls for the genocide of Jews would constitute harassment. In response, right wing activist Christopher Rufo and the Washington Free Beacon investigated Harvard president Claudine Gay’s writing and uncovered dozens of instances of plagiarism. Notwithstanding Harvard’s attempts to minimize damagae, after further evidence of shoddy scholarship emerged in investigations by CNN and the New York Post as well as a Twitter campaign against her by donor and activist Blil Ackman, Gay resigned although she retains her astronomical salary of nearly $900,000 a year. In turn, somewhat leftish news site Business Insider credibly point out instances of plagiarism by Ackman’s wife Neri Oxman. Having looked at both examples, in both cases I conclude that there is merit in condemning both for their sloppiness. In both cases, I would have failed them for plagiarism had they submitted such work as my students. Moreover, the inability of “progressives” to look past Gay’s skin color to investigate her privilige as the child of a Haitian oligarch spoke volumes about their cynicism.

But this does lead back to AI: how do we see plagiarism in the era of AI? Can one copy verbatim from GPT conversations one has prompted? How about from a Custom GPT one has tuned oneself? What if the AI itself regurgitates someone else’s text? Does one cite an AI? These are rather interesting questions and certainly more interesting than the typical reaction of the academy to either the plagiarism wars (generally afraid they will be next) or the question of training on AI content (typically seen as bad by academics). Such dilemmas will only become more common as AI use becomes more common.

One last comment about AI. I have come to shift my thinking from being somewhat concerned about the future dangers of developing AGI to a concern that if the US follows the path of more timid countries like Italy, the West might cede its head start in AI to China or Russia, a situation that would be extremely dangerous from a geopolitical perspective. While I may still be proven wrong, at this point the one great difference between AI and my cat is that my cat has volition and desires that she is constantly exercising. Roxy the cat may not know that much, but she is determined. An AI doesn’t have any volition or desires, besides fulfilling the task at hand. Potentially this may change as agents develop, but for now, we may have Artificial General Intelligence, but we do not have Artificial Sentience.

I taught my first course this May, and sought to outline the parameters of this new culture. It’s still very early, but network culture is finis, kaput. Even it’s last stages, wokeism and Maga, such products of social media seem spent. Last year, I thought that federated networks such as Mastodon were the future. This year, I am not so sure. Mastodon and Blue Sky sunk themselves early on by embracing the Left’s cynical culture of intolerence (if anything offends Lefties on Mastodon, they call for servers to be banned while the users on Blue Sky generally seem to be about as socially sophisticated as sixth graders, banding together to drive off anybody who isn’t far Left). The big “success” of 2023 in social media was Meta’s Threads, but a botched launch (no EU access and a focus on delivering news and entertainment rather than connecting with friends and colleagues) has seemingly ensured that there has no engagement on in whatsoever. Twitter, X, or Xitter (as in Martin Luther wrote his 95 Theses while sitting on the Xitter) muddles on, with a modern day Howard Hughes at the helm, babbling his drug-induced conspiracy theories even as he ponders never cutting his fingernails again and saving his urine in jars around the head office of X. Even with a presidential election upon us, the insane political frenzies of 2016 and 2020 are much diminished as users tire of politcs and social media networks actively bury news stories. This has, in turn, had a significant impact on news sources, which in fairness, have been slipshod and low quality for too long. Both legacy journalism and digital media are in trouble—the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post laid off large numbers of staff while Vice News, Buzzfeed, and the brand new Messenger shut down (or basically shut down)—an “extinction-level events” according to some. In a Washington Post op-ed the former head of Google News (!) suggests that it AI will kill the news and begs for regulation, but this just noise. The real problem is that news wanted to be entertainment and abandoned sober reporting for clickbait and outrage. The replacement of journalism with shrill panic may have been jolly good fun for both the far Left and far Right but this led to outrage fatigue. More people mute stories about Gaza and Israel or Trump and abortion these days than pay attention to them (guilty as charged). We all want to be Ohio man. The news has only itself to blame. How we can have responsible journalism again is beyond me, although publications like the New Atlantis do

Network culture was millennial culture and that finally died in 2023. Skinny jeans and man-buns are now what out-of-touch parents wear, like tie-die shirts and bell bottoms in 1985. Gen Z has its own, seemingly inscrutible cultural codes, which often seem to be that of a studied fashion trainwreck. But high fashion has died. Nobody who isn’t an oligarch or a rap star wants Gucci, Prada, or Vuitton anymore. Young people are into drops from obscure online boutiques and thrifting. Once Russia and China catch up, the old fashion houses will swiftly go the way of the dinosaurs. The same may be happening in tech. Apple’s laptops are boring. I didn’t buy a single Apple computer or iPad this year. I did purchase my first high end PC ever, an Acronym ROG Flow Z-13. I’ve been a fan of obscure Berlin tech fashion brand Acronym for a while and since my youngest kid is studying game design at NYU next fall, it was time to learn about contemporary gaming. It’s been a joy to use in ways that Apple equipment just isn’t anymore. I also purchased a couple of Boox e-ink tablets. Whether they are better than iPads for one’s eyes is a matter of debate, but they are certainly more interesting. Instead of boring Apple crap, I bought a Kwumsy (Kwusmy!) keyboard with a built in panoramic toucshscreen monitor. It’s unimaginable that big tech would make something like this. Niche tech has personality, big tech does not. As tech fashion Youtuber This is Antwon stated in another brilliant video, “Weird Tech Fashion is FINALLY Cool Again.”

So a year in review that morphed into a year in tech. But tech is not just tech now, it’s really our culture—including our spatial culture, which was formerly the purview of architecture. Even taking a stand against tech, embroils us in it. I’d like to find a way past this monolith, but it’s not easy to think past it. I’m open to suggestions, as long as they don’t reduce everything to the god of Capital, which seems to be the other option.

I hope to be back soon, with more posts.

Fall Appearances

I have a very full schedule this fall, with six talks, five of which are outside of the New York area. It’s a great privilege to be invited to participate in so many incredible venues and I hope this gives me a chance to see old friends and make new ones in the various locations I will be visiting. 

24 September, Lūžio taškas (Breaking Point), Palanga, Lithuania

09 October, Image.Architecture.Now, Julius Shulman Institute, Woodbury University, Los Angeles

12 October, Once Upon a Place, 1st International Conference on Architecture and Fiction, Lisbon, Portugal

14 October, Who Owns Images, panel discussion with Geeta Dayal, Thomas Demand, and Sam Thorne, Frieze Talks 2010, London, England

07 November, Datacity, Amber Conference, Istanbul, Turkey

18 November, Design and Existential Risk, Parsons The New School for Design, New York, NY

Last but not least, the New City Reader, a collaboration with Joseph Grima and many amazing individuals and networks in the form of a print newspaper starts October 5 at the New Museum. This is a sneak preview. More soon.

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The Saddest Ship Afloat

Is there a sadder ship afloat than the Democratic party?

The groundswell of support for "Hope" and change has turned against them. Why? Barack Obama, class clowns like Larry Summers and Rahm Emmanuel, and the DNC should really lead a sing-along to Led Zeppelin’s immortal song "Nobody’s fault but mine." Take a look at this piece from PBS Newshour and Patchwork Nation, which identifies where the Tea Party movement is the strongest. Turns out that support it is in those areas in which the housing boom soared the highest and crashed the hardest. It’s easy for these "liberals" to poke fun at the beer-drinking, ATV and jet-ski riding crowd in their exurban homesteads, but this could have been a source of support for the Dems. Instead they decided to put all their cards in supporting Wall Street and the financial sector since, after all, that is where they come from, that is who funded them, and that is all that mattered to them. Of course now that Wall Street is turning against its former allies—perhaps to extract another round of concessions from the Republicans—a mid-term rout is in progress. What a fiasco!  

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What is our Antiquity?

I often think of TJ Clark’s observation that "Modernism is our antiquity. … the forms of representation it originally gave rise to are unreadable." This statement makes clear the way that modernity—the process of the modernizing a world not yet fully modern—is lost to us.

It’s hard to tell precisely where the break happened. Is it when Ernest Mandel’s late capitalism takes over? Or is it a bit later, when progress has collapsed? After all, it’s hard to see the Great Society as a postmodern program. A couple of years later, 1968 is the definitive break: product of the dashed hopes of postwar modernism, an early cry of the culture of overaccumulation, an upheaval toward postmodernity. 

Network culture, I would like to suggest—and I think that in his talk on atemporality Bruce Sterling does this as well—has a certain affinity to modernity in that it is not yet complete.

For all the talk of the generation currently entering college being born digital, this simply isn’t true yet. My sense is that pervasive locative and mobile technologies as well as the spread of non-computer Internet browsers is necessary for this and they only become everyday with the 2007 launch of the iPhone.

It’s at that point, let’s say some ten to fifteen years from now—coincidentally a time when we might have recovered from the crisis of overaccumulation that we find ourselves in—that something quite new will come to pass and that world will be as unrecognizable to us as ours will be to it.   


[1] . T.J. Clark, Farewell to an Idea (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 3.


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Network Culture Fall 2010

My latest syllabus for the Network Culture course as I am teaching it this term at Columbia.

Columbia University
Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation
A4515: Network Culture. The History of the Contemporary

Fall 2010 Professor Kazys Varnelis
Lectures/Seminars Wednesday 11-1,
408 Avery


The purpose of this seminar is to come to an advanced historical understanding of the changed conditions that characterize our networked age. We will explore how the network is not merely a technology with social ramifications but rather serves as a cultural dominant connecting changes in society, economy, aesthetics, urbanism, and ideology. As a history of the contemporary, the seminar is organized around a series of topics tracing a genealogy of present-day culture.

Topics to be addressed include network theory, changing concepts of time and space, the rise of networked publics, contemporary poetics, new forms of subjectivity, and methods of control. Throughout, we will make connections between architecture and this insurgent condition.


Participation: 20%

Each class will consist of a presentation by the instructor on selected themes, followed by an in-depth discussion in seminar. Students are expected to prepare all readings in order to facilitate a discussion in which all students participate. Active participation by all students in each session is required.

Tumblr: 20%

Each student is expected to maintain a tumblelog on tumblr.com and to post at least twice a week. Beyond mere reblogging of information pertinent to the course, the tumblelog will form a record and commentary upon their research during the semester.

Curatorial Project: 60%

The term project will be a curatorial project, exploring a cultural topic related to the subject matter with a written and visual component.

Both design and scholarship are integral to the term project. A carefully curated and designed work will be accompanied a 2,500 word essay on the curated material.

Plagiarism of any sort will result in immediate failure


Readings will be available on-line






An Overview of Network Culture

Manuel Castells, "Informationalism, Networks, and the Network Society: A Theoretical Blueprint. In Castells, ed. The Network Society: A Cross-cultural Perspective (Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar, 2004), 3-45.

Gilles Deleuze, "Postscript on Control Societies," Negotiations, 1972-1990 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), 73-77.

Kazys Varnelis, "Conclusion: The Meaning of Network Culture," Networked Publics, 1-13 and 145-163.



Postmodernism and Periodization

David Harvey, "Fordism" and "From Fordism to Flexible Accumulation," in The Condition of Postmodernity, (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1989), 125-172.

Fredric Jameson, "Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism," New Left Review 146 (July/August 1984): 53-92.


Hal Foster, "Postmodernism: A Preface," in Hal Foster, ed., The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture (Townsend, Washington: Bay Press, 1983), ix-xvi.



Network Theory

Albert-László Barabási, "Six Degrees of Separation," "Small Worlds," and "Hubs and Connectors," Linked: The New Science of Networks (Cambridge, MA: Perseus, 2002), 25-63.

Nicholas Carr, "From the Many to the Few" The Big Switch: Rewiring the World from Edison to Google (New York: W. W. Norton, 2008), 127-149.


Mark S. Granovetter, "The Strength of Weak Ties," American Journal of Sociology 78 (May 1973), 1360-1380.

Duncan J. Watts, "The Connected Age," Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age, (New York: W.W. Norton, 2003), 19-42.




Jean Baudrillard, "The End of the Millennium or the Countdown," Economy & Society 26 (1997): 447-55.

Jean François Lyotard, "Answering the Question: What is Postmodernism?" Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1984), xxiii-xxv.

Jeffrey Nealon, "Once More, With Intensity, Foucault’s History of Power Revisited," Foucault Beyond Foucault, 24-53.

Bruce Sterling, "Atemporality for the Creative Artist," https://www.transmediale.de/en/keynote-bruce-sterling-us-atemporality

transcribed: https://www.wired.com/beyond_the_beyond/2010/02/atemporality-for-the-creative-artist/




Special Class

Special Surprise Guest





Michel Foucault, "Docile Bodies," Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), 135-156.

Georg Simmel, "The Metropolis and Mental Life," Georg Simmel, On Individuality and Social Forms: Selected Writings, ed. Donald N. Levine (Chicago, 1971), 325-339.

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, "Capitalist Sovereignty, Or Administering the Global Society of Control," Empire (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000), 325-350.

Marc Augé, "Prologue" and "From Places to Non-Places," in Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, (London; New York: Verso, 1995), 1-6. 75-115.

Hans Ibelings, "Supermodernism," Supermodernism (Rotterdam: NAi Publishers, 1998), 55-102.


Kazys Varnelis, interview with Hans Ibelings, to be posted online.

Kazys Varnelis and Marc Tuters, "Beyond Locative Media: Giving Shape to the Internet of Things," Leonardo 39, No. 4 (2006): 357-363.

Jordan Crandall, "Operational Media," Ctheory, https://www.ctheory.net/articles.aspx?id=441.

Martin Dodge and Rob Kitchen, "Code and the Transduction of Life," Journal of the Association of American Geographers 95, no. 1 (2005): 162-80.





Yochai Benkler, "Chapter 1. Introduction: A Moment of Opportunity and Challenge" and "Chapter 4. The Economics of Social Production," The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), 1-28 and 91-127.

Chris Anderson, "The Long Tail," Wired, October 2004, https://www.wired.com/wired/archive/12.10/tail.html

Clay Shirky, "Power Laws, Weblogs and Inequality," Clay Shirky’s Writings About the Internet. https://www.shirky.com/writings/powerlaw_weblog.html

Bill Wausik, "My Crowd. Or Phase 5: A Report from the Inventor of the Flash Mob," Harper’s Magazine (March 2006), 56-66.

Bill Bishop, The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2008), 1-77.


Selections from Michael J. Weiss, The Clustered World: How We Live, What We Buy, and What it All Means About Who We Are (New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 1999).

Malcolm Gladwell, "The Coolhunt," New Yorker (March 17, 1997), 78-88, https://www.gladwell.com/1997/1997_03_17_a_cool.htm

Grant McCracken, "Who Killed the Coolhunter?" https://www.cultureby.com/trilogy/2006/06/who_killed_the_.html

Duncan J. Watts and Peter Sheridan Dodd, "Influentials, Networks, and Public Formation," Journal of Consumer Research (December 2007), 441-458.





Geert Lovink, "Blogging: The Nihilist Impulse," Eurozine (2007), https://www.eurozine.com/articles/2007-01-02-lovink-en.html

Nicolas Bourriaud, Postproduction (New York: Lukas & Sternberg, 2002), 7-48.

Alan Liu, The Laws of Cool: Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), excerpts.

Jordan Crandall, "Showing," https://jordancrandall.com/showing/index.html





Kenneth J. Gergen,"Social Saturation and the Populated Self," The Saturated Self: Dilemmas of Identity in Contemporary Life (New York: Basic Books, 2000), 48-80.

Brian Holmes, "The Flexible Personality. For a New Cultural Critique," Transversal, https://transform.eipcp.net/transversal/1106/holmes/en

Warren Neidich, "Resistance is Futile," Artbrain. Journal of Neuroasthetic Theory 4, https://www.artbrain.org/neuroaesthetics/neidich.html.

Nicholas Carr, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?," Atlantic Monthly, July/August 2008, 56-63.





Joseph A .Tainter, "Introduction to Collapse," The Collapse of Complex Societies, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 1-21.

Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron, "The Californian Ideology," https://www.hrc.wmin.ac.uk/theory-californianideology-main.html.

Saskia Sassen, "Electronic space and power," Journal of Urban Technology 4 (1997): 1-17.

Alexander R. Galloway, "Physical Media,"Protocol: How Control Exists after Decentralization, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004), 29-53.






Research Week



Some Books to Consult on Design and Presentation:

Allen Hurlburt, The Grid: A Modular System for the Design and Production of Newspapers, Magazines, and Books (New York: Van Norstand Reinhold, 1978).

Enric Jardí, Twenty-Tips on Typography (Barcelona: ACTAR, 2007).

Josef Muller-Brockmann, Grid Systems in Graphic Design (Zurich: Niggli, 2001).

Timothy Samar, Making and Breaking the Grid. A Graphic Design Layout Workshop
(Beverly, MA: Rockport, 2002).




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Book Updates

I updated my book in progress yesterday, uploading new versions of the introduction, chapter one, and chapter two. Read it here

My book, presently titled Culture in the Age of Networks. A Critical History takes on a seemingly impossible task (I am drawn to those, apparently): how to periodize the contemporary. During my education as a scholar, postmodernism was a topic of heady debate. If some of that debate was blather, it also helped us understand our milieu. Today, however, such discussions are all but non-existent. We do talk a great deal about the impact of technology or the economy, but in doing so, we compartmentalize discussion and debate to our detriment. This book sets out to understand the outlines of our culture as a whole. 

The introduction elaborates that argument in much more detail.

Chapter One "Time. History under Atemporality" addresses the question of atemporality, a matter that Bruce Sterling and I have bounced around between us in detail via our two blogs. It also serves to ratchet the book deeper into its methodological argument. Take a good look at it. As Bruce suggests in a talk on atemporality "This is a problem in the philosophy of history." Yes, that sounds onerous and I suppose it is, but we live in onerous times. 

Chapter Two "Space: Pervasive Simultaneity and the Financialization of Everyday Life" looks at the changes in space. For just as time is being called into question, so is space. Both modernity’s abstract, gridded space and postmodernity’s hyperspace are being overridden by the space of the network. This chapter looks at manifestations of network space, in particular, the spread of simultaneity from something that takes place in mass media to something that takes place in everyday life as well as the techniques of financialization that value space in new ways.

It’s a bit painful to watch my progress. I had hoped for a draft by the end of last year, then by the end of the summer. Now I’ve set my sights for the end of this year. It may still be possible. The first two chapters correspond to spring and summer of this year which suggests a completion date of December 2011, but Iam optimistic that it’s going to be much, much earlier. These were difficult chapters to write and involved me digging into a huge swath of information. Moreover, they set the scene for the book in ways that I hadn’t expected. I don’t pretend that the final four chapters won’t have surprises, but I think it likely that they will move considerably more rapidly, especially since I have drafted parts of them for other audiences (e.g. my essay for Turbulence’s Networked project forms the core of the poetics chapter). 

So today I’ll be sitting on my porch, working on the chapter on Publics. Since I’ve already drafted a bit of it, I’m about 1/4 of the way through already which is a considerable relief. So onwards … to try and get a handle on just what we mean by "networked publics."  


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