Atemporality, the iPhone Camera, and the Hipster

Over at Cyborgology, Nathan Jurgenson dissects the "Faux-Vintage Photo" to uncover how individuals today seek to occupy the near past.

Johansen suggests, quite correctly, that the familiar tools of network culture by which we mark our lives put us into a perpetual future past. Unable to find a temporal grounding today, hipsters seek it in the past. Johansen points to the popular photographic filters that give the low-resolution digital images produced by smartphones a vintage look. These, he concludes, allow individuals living to reframe their lives around moments that seem more authentic. 

This fits rather neatly within the schema of atemporality identified by Bruce Sterling (see more here and my take on it here). The hipstamatic photo is different than Warhol's approach. It's similar to Cindy Sherman's Untitled Film Stills (note that when I found that link, under related items the MoMA store listed the "Lomo" camera, the physical counterpart to the software Johansen discusses… DIY!) but not quite the same. Where postmodernism was marked by allegory, network culture's use of the past is flatter, dispensing with the use of allegory or comment.

As Johansen points out, there is a perverse degree of temporality to this sort of cultural practice. After the neo-"authentic" cultural product is overexposed, it is unsalvageable. Thus, it is the nature of the hipster to destroy the things that he or she loves.

Midcentury modern is a great example. We are purchasing a house. Since it is modern and built in 1981, just a decade ago we would have gladly bought midcentury modern furniture. Now its much more difficult. Maybe an item or two but on the whole these "classics" have aged and simply no longer work. In part, of course, this is myself speaking. But I've also spoken to other friends as well. Overexposed, the authentic recedes into the past for good. The hipster kills whatever he or she loves too much. 

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Inception, Disconnection, and Atemporality

I saw Inception the other night and was pleasantly surprised. Perhaps I should have looked at the movie poster more carefully and noted the ominous presence of One Wilshire. For like One Wilshire, the film revealed more of itself as it went on and, even with all of its complexity, had a well-thought out ending, not the lame sort of ending that has frustrated me too often lately in projects that I otherwise liked, like Lost or Spook Country

The central conceit of the film is that the characters have access to a technology developed by the military to create dreams that can be inhabited and shaped collectively. I will refrain from discussing the movie in much more detail so as to avoid spoiling it for those of you who haven’t seen it, but I thought I’d make an observation about how the film engages disconnection and atemporality, the topics of the first two chapters of my book on network culture.

Let’s turn to space first. The argument that I make in the chapter of Life After Networks that I am currently finishing up is that everyday spatial experience today is marked by disconnection. Right now I am disconnecting from the space around me to connect with my readership in the mediated space of this site while teenagers in Japan are engaged in telecocoons with close friends via mobile phones, and bankers in London are getting back from lunch and texting each other on their blackberries. Now simultaneity has been a key part of our phenomenological existence since modernity came to its early adulthood and the telegraph was invented. Already in the Mexican War of 1846 to 1848, audiences in New York received daily updates from the front. By the turn of the century, simultaneity was recognized as integral to modernity and the products of the heady first thirty years of the century, from Les Demoiselles d’Avignon to Ulysses to the Light-Space Modulator evidence the modern’s fascination with this condition. Radio and television brought simultaneity into the realm of everyday experience, but it was still one-way. Local telephone calls were the exception, although these were tied to specific locations: you had to reach a location before you could reach a person. 

Still, modernity and postmodernity were both marked by an alienation that stemmed from feeling disconnected from the world around you. Today, however, we disconnect constantly in order to connect with others at a remove from us. Mobile and smart phones, wireless enabled laptops, and so on make it possible for us to leave the spaces for places in which we can feel more at home. Where disconnection is unhappy, it is generally the common phenomenon of the workplace intruding on our private lives (or occasionally the reverse)  Even the primary means of experiencing music today, iPods, are a form of disconnection, although they connect us less to other spaces than color our moods, the massive amounts of storage the offer allowing us to augmenting the world we inhabit with a soundtrack to our choosing in a much more seamless way than the Walkman or Discman ever could have.

Inception embodies this as dream piles upon dream, each at a different temporal pace, each in a different space. The experience of dreaming is not that different from the experience of entering into a telecocoon, blogging or playing an MMORPG (indeed, the film could have substituted MMORPG for dream rather effortlessly… that it did not is telling). 

In talking about the film with Kyle Hovenkotter, who is working with me at the Netlab this summer, he pointed out that Inception is also thoroughly atemporal. i’m not going to say a huge amount about atemporality here. I’ve done enough of that in the first chapter of Life After Networks here. Simply enough, atemporality suggests that more than ever, history has come undone for us and we have lost any capacity for understanding our lives temporally. Thus, we inhabit a world in which we live in the present, but are perfectly willing to treat the past as a fetish object to be recreated in perfect simulation (Mad Men, artisinal light bulbs, etc.), even as we eschew the postmodernist trope of pastiche, which operated in the mode of irony. For all that I said about technology in the preceding paragraphs, cell phones,  iPods,  even laptop computers are all conspicuously absent. Clearly we are in some moment after the invention of bullet train and the Airfone, but it could as easily be 1985 or 1990 as it could today. 

So that said, I was surprised by the Building Design review that attacked the film for the supposed blandness of its architecture. I think the reviewer missed the point here. The very corporate banality of the architecture—the LADWP building become a thousand feet tall, for example, or the repeated appearance of One Wilshire in a chase scene—is key. The ability of the dreamers to construct paradoxical architecture such as stairs that endlessly rise or streets that turn in upon themselves put the focus on the way the architecture performed, not the way it looked. Beyond that however, this kind of corporate modernism made for not just the best-collapsing ruins, but also contributed to a feeling that the people in it are not entirely real. Most of all the architecture of Inception is atemporal. To introduce a building by Libeskind, Piano, or Koolhaas would have marred the film.

Summing up, I recommend the film for anyone working in network culture today. It captures our moment and, in so doing, allows us to come to an understanding of where we are, even if, in the end, any final answer vanishes from our grasp.    


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A Chapter on Atemporality

I’ve put a revised version of the introduction to my book on network culture together with the first chapter—on atemporality—on my site. I hope you’ll be as excited to read this material as I am to post it.

I know that I owe my most readers a few words of explanation about why it took over a year to post a chapter that I had initially thought I’d have up within a couple of months.

First, I had the honor of writing a chapter in Networked: A (Networked) Book on (Networked) Art. As part of this project, I agreed that I wouldn’t take the material for the chapter and immediately publish it on my own site. That material, like a lot of the research I  did last year requires substantial reworking to fit the book (little of it is in the first chapter…you’ll see it later, in the chapter on poetics).

Second, I’ve thoroughly rethought the book during the intervening year not once but repeatedly. This is hardly a crisis, but rather the way that I—and many historians—write. Revise again and again as you nibble at unformed parts until everything comes together.

Some of you have asked how the revision process works, so I’ve left the record on the site, just go to the revisions tab for any section and compare the current version with earlier ones. Of all the revisions, the most significant is a new model of historical succession that I find simply works for network culture. Whereas last year I had some uncertainty about just how this book would be a history, the first chapter—which of course is on history—now makes my strategy of relying on Michel Foucault and Jeffrey Nealon’s model of intensification emphatically clear.

Speaking of revisions, make no mistake, there are plenty of rough patches in these chapters. This is, after all, a draft. Don’t  read it if you want a finished product. But also don’t think you should hold back on your commentary. Whether at Networked or at the other ventures including this one, networked books have largely failed at generating comments. Don’t let that stop you. If you see a problem in the text call me out on it wherever you feel appropriate. The more that I can draw on the massive collective intelligence of my readership, the better this project wil be.   

While I’m on the topic of collective intelligence… This first chapter owes much to a dialogue that Bruce Sterling and I have maintained between our blogs (take, for example, Bruce’s discussion of atemporality in his keynote address at Transmediale this year) and on Twitter with many of you. All of the kind attention that this dialogue brought during the first few months of the year makes me think that my attempt to write a history of atemporality is both timely and untimely (in Nietzsche’s sense).

Finally, a word about the book title. It’s very much in flux now, but I’m thinking it might be "Life After Networks: A Critical History of Network Culture."   

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On atemporality

I wanted to lay out some thoughts about atemporality in response to Bruce Sterling’s great presentation on the topic over at Transmediale.* We’ve had a dialogue about this back and forth over the net, in places like Twitter and it’s my turn to respond. 

The topic of atemporality is absorbing my time now. I have the goal of getting the first chapter of my book on network culture up by the end of next month (I know, last year I thought it would be the end of March of that year, but so it goes) and it is the core of an article that I’m working on at present for the Cornell Journal of Architecture. 

Anyway, I was impressed by how Bruce framed his argument for network culture. This isn’t a new master narrative at all, there’s no need to expect the anti-periodization take-down to come, or if it does, it’ll be interesting to see the last living postmodernists. Instead, network culture is a given that we need to make sense of. I was also taken by how Bruce gave it an expiry date: it’s going to last about a decade before something else comes along. 

Then there’s Bruce’s tone, always on the verge of laughter. It’s classic Bruce, but it’s also network culture at work, the realm of 4chan, lolcatz, chatroulette and infinite snark. And I can imagine that one day Bruce will say "It’s all a big joke. I mean come on, did you think I was serious about this?" And I’d agree. After all, a colleague once asked me if the Internet wasn’t largely garbage, a cultural junkspace devoid of merit? Of course, I said, what do you take me for a fool? She replied by saying she was just wondering since after all, I studied it. I said, well yes, it’s mainly dreck but what are you going to do with these eighty trillion virtual pages of dreck, wave your hands and pretend they’ll go away? It’s not going to happen. So yes, snark is how we talk about this cultural ooze, because that’s not only what it deserves, it’s what it wants. To adopt a big word from literary criticism: snark is immanent to network culture.   

I was also taken by Bruce’s description of early network culture and late network culture. Again, network culture isn’t a master narrative. It has no telos or end goal. We’re not going to hold up Rem Koolhaas or hypertext or liberalism or the Revolution or the Singularity, Methusalarity or anything else as an end point to history. In that, we part from Hegel definitively. Instead, network culture is transitional. Bruce suggests that it has ten years before something else comes along. He also talks about early network culture, which we’re in now, and late network culture, which we can’t really anticipate yet.   

I think he’s on to something there, but I think we need to make a further division: network culture before and after the crash. The relentless optimism of the pre-crash days is gone, taking starchitecture, Dubai (remember Dubai?), post-criticism, the magazine era, Prada, and hedge fund trading with it. We are in a different phase now, in which portents of collapse are as much part of the discourse as the next big thing. Let’s call it the uneasy middle of network culture.

Things are much less sure and they’re unlikely to get any better anytime soon. It’s going to be a slow ten years, equal to the 70s or maybe somewhere between the 70s and the 30s. Instead of temporary unemployment, we’re looking at a massive restructuring in which old industries depart this mortal coil. Please, if you are out of work, don’t assume the jobs will return when the recession ends. They won’t. They’re gone.

But as Bruce suggested, we have to have some fun with network culture. Over at the Netlab research blogs, we’re starting to put together a dossier of evidence about practices of atemporality in contemporary culture. You’ll be hearing a lot more about atemporality from me over the next month. 

*The talk is below. 

If you prefer, you can now read the transcript online here

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