preliminary findings toward an architectural history of the network posted

I have been working on my garden for much of the last month. This is an all-consuming task, but today I had the opportunity to find an old article that I wrote on the origin of data centers, “Preliminary Findings Toward an Architectural History of the Network,” New Geographies 07 (2015). 

You can read it here.

In this essay, I explore the architectural history of networks, focusing on the typology of data centers and its historical emergence. The network, despite receiving critical attention since the Internet’s proliferation, has been largely overlooked from an architectural perspective.

I argue that understanding the data center as a building type is essential, as well as understanding that it encompasses various architectural manifestations ranging from repurposed buildings to purpose-built structures. I trace the origins of the data center to the post office, which developed in the United States in the mid-nineteenth century. I examine the link between data centers and territory, emphasizing the role of the mail system in the political development of the nation.

The expansion of postal routes, the implementation of a hub-and-spoke system, and the architectural form of post offices are detailed, highlighting the network’s infancy and its historical emergence in typological terms. The essay continues with an examination of the introduction of home delivery and the development of the telegraph system. I analyze the growth of telegraphy, its alliance with the media, and concerns about monopolies. Overall, this research provides a comprehensive examination of the architectural history of networks, shedding light on the typological, geographical, and technological aspects of networks. My goal was to provide insights into the historical significance and contemporary relevance of data centers, thereby contributing to a broader understanding of the material and geographic conditions shaped by the constraints of the physical world.

On Art and the Universal, II

Last July, I wrote a piece “On Art and the Universal, I” and promised part two within a week. It’s almost 11 months later, so here it is. The first piece stands on its own as a critique of the political cynicism of the academic-gallery nexus. This second piece stands alone as well. Read part I, re-read it, or don’t bother. 

As an art scholar and artist, I find the Greenbergian tradition invaluable. I studied for a year with Hal Foster in graduate school and was compelled by Rosalind Krauss’s essay on sculpture in the expanded field, as well as by Clement Greenberg’s efforts to find a trajectory for research within postwar painting. Briefly, Greenberg asserted that each art form should concentrate on its own unique properties or “the specificity of the medium“. Famously, Greenberg believed that the essence of modernism was to “use the characteristic methods of the discipline to criticize the discipline itself, not in order to subvert it but in order to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence.” To this end, painting, for Greenberg would best focus on the flatness of the canvas instead of imitating the three-dimensionality of sculpture. This was of great utility for the last generation of truly productive artists in the US, from Kenneth Noland to Donald Judd to James Turrell to my father, all of whom engaged with Greenberg—even when they disagreed with him. Disciplinary self-criticism and the specificity of the medium was a research project that embodied an Enlightenment ideal of a shared project of advancing human knowledge in a particular discipline. Krauss, who studied with Greenberg, reinterpreted his philosophy, moving away from the idea of medium specificity to propose art as an expanded field of practices and mediums, including conceptual, installation, and performance art. The object of interrogation ceased to be the medium and became the institution of art itself and with this, a greater element of political critique could be introduced. Foster took this further in his writings on the Pictures Generation, shifting to a postmodern exploration of the process of art making, originality and identity, and the nature of the sign itself.

Although I empathize with the Greenbergian search for politically progressive forces in art, this aspect of the project has run aground, even if is the only part of the project that remains popular. I detail this in my previous post, but in sum, the quest for the political in art has amounted to little more than a justification for guilty consciousness and the drive to affirm one’s virtue. Far from a place of resistance, the political in art is cynical in a Sloterdijkian sense: its proponents know that it has nothing to do with actual political progress, but they claim it nevertheless.

Perhaps not coincidentally, art lost the thread since the 1970s. Even as postmodernists deployed postmodernism as a totalizing concept, they claimed that totalization was obsolete (the classic boomer move of declaring itself the best and last generation at anything). For postmodernists, totalizing historical frameworks overgeneralize the intricacies and nuances of historical events and cultural phenomena, leading to oversimplification and inaccuracies, they overlook differences within a given time period, such as the experiences of marginalized groups, and they perpetuate existing power dynamics by privileging dominant cultural or social perspectives. But the price for rejecting totalizing narratives is that where art used to make clear, measured progress, after postmodernism, it is stuck in an endless loop of pluralism, sustained only by self-justifying statements about politics. Today, the relationship between theory and totality is fractured and postmodern thought, ironically, leans toward irrelevance. In his 1979 La condition postmoderne: rapport sur le savoir (translated as the Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge), Jean-François Lyotard observed that knowledge—primarily science—was being fragmented into incommensurable discourse as an incredulity to metanarratives emerged. Today, the arts and humanities are also splintered into incommensurable discourses. But rather than being a position of greater strength and self-criticism, the fracture of narrative banally reflects our very existence, our selves intensely fragmented by the operations of media. Art practices and theories that exacerbate that fragmentation are merely accelerationist or, more likely, uncritical and reactive in nature. Lacking a metanarrative, however, there is little else they can do besides exacerbate fragmentation. 

I contend that it’s time we breathe life back into the Greenbergian theoretical framework. This 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. 

Except for the most feeble-minded of thinkers, the development of advanced levels of networked computation is the single biggest transformation in human existence in many decades. Our sense of what media is and our relationship to it has changed profoundly. Thus, although it is entirely possible for artists to pursue other, legitimate forms of research, my own work largely revolves around the role of technology in our lives. In the last year, I have specifically been compelled to explore the new generation of Artificial Intelligence software, particularly AI image generators.

What is specific to AI image generators is not the creation of the new, but rather their endless capacity to remix the history of art and imagery. We could see this as part of a dialectic, or more simply, as part of a back-and-forth process of art history since the late eighteenth-century loss of the absolute belief in the principles of classical art. After the archeological discovery that the ancient Greeks and Romans did not have a consistent system, art was set adrift with its terrifying newfound freedom. Nineteenth-century eclecticism followed: rules were treated flexibly and forms could be freely combined at will. The backlash came with modernism’s rejection of all past forms and its search for a new, universal language of form, a project refined in Greenberg’s late modernist turn toward the specificity of the medium. In response, Postmodernism critiqued the new and turned toward the semiotic recombination of past forms and/or imagery from popular culture and commercial art. Starting about 25 years ago, Network Culture or Metamodernism supplanted postmodernism, largely relying on a resurgence of interest in technical effects and their capacity to elicit sensation. Think of Anish Kapoor or Olafur Ellison, for example, or the emergence of the very large, technically flawless salon-painting-sized photographs by artists such as Andreas Gursky or Jeff Wall.
The era of AI creation is not, primarily, an era of the new. Architecture throws things into heightened relief. A furry, feathery building is not new. Nor is it interesting, except as a means of generating Instagram hits. Within a few years, AIs will be developed to effectively generate endless, plausible architectural models from a set of given parameters (site, area needed, programme, etc.), but even those are likely to remain endless permutations of the sort a follower of Frank Lloyd Wright or Mies van der Rohe might have done in their offices. For now, AIs are not yet capable of producing sophisticated three-dimensional models, but they are capable of producing imagery by remixing content. When something new emerges, it is through unusual juxtapositions thought up by the operator, but also through accidents. Malformed image generations can be interesting: for example, in my project on an alternative history of art in Vilnius, a series of glitched images appeared like the following image, which was supposed to be of a painting exhibit in a gallery. This process can be iterative since open-source AIs such as Stable Diffusion can be trained on specific datasets, so when accidents happen, artists can take those unusual results further. 

AI image generation reveals that all art is already intertextual, that is, shaped by, and in turn shaping, other works through allusions, references, and influences. My father was a modernist but nevertheless spent his evenings looking at coffee table art books of Renaissance and Baroque masters for inspiration. Nor was this an uncommon practice among modern painters. We now have a different way of accessing that cultural subconscious. It does not reveal itself easily either. Working with AI image generators is, for the serious artist, as time-consuming as any other practice. The virtue of a Critical AI Art, however, is to explore how artworks are developed within a network of works, historical and recent, and the cultural contexts that surround them. A Critical AI Art expressly addresses intertextuality and its relation to the idea of originality, not merely because these are the issues raised by AI image generation, but because these are issues inherent to art itself. 

On an art experiment in soviet Lithuania

Looking through my own library of books from occupied Lithuania, I realized that a broader audience was likely unfamiliar with the story of the Lithuanian SSR’s artistic revolution in the 1970s, a bold and audacious deviation from the traditional narrative of Soviet-controlled artistic expression is the midst of the Cold War that has yet to receive proper treatment in the West.

By 1960, the Politburo had become concerned about the rising cultural influence of the United States worldwide, particularly in Europe. In particular, they were concerned about the use of art in the ideological war with the capitalist and democratic West. As Serge Guilbaut’s book How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art elucidates, the United States Information Agency and the CIA weaponized modern art as a form of soft power. 

… the battle against communism promised to be a long and difficult one, and one which for want of traditional weapons would require the full arsenal of propaganda. The war may have been a “cold war” but it was nonetheless a total war. Accordingly, art, too, was called upon to play its part.

Guilebaut, 173.

The dynamism and unpredictability of Abstract Expressionism served as an apt metaphor for the freedom and innovation promised in the American way of life, a foil to the strictures of Socialist Realism that dominated the art scene in the USSR during the 1950s. The ossification of Socialist Realism, and the understanding of it outside the Soviet Union as rigid, formulaic, and bereft of individual expression was a contrast to the immediate post-revolutionary environment when Anatoly Lunacharsky, the first Bolshevik Soviet People’s Commissar responsible for the Ministry of Education, recognized the power of avant-garde art as a tool of propaganda and influence and advocated for Agitprop experiments inside during the heady days of “War Communism.” Soon, seeking to convert the European avant-garde to Communism, he dispatched El Lissitzky  to Western Europe to spread the gospel of Constructivism and funded publications like Veshch/Gegenstand/Objet to showcase the exciting new direction of Soviet art to the world. Such radical projects were soon suppressed in favor of a romanticized cult of the worker in Socialist Realism. But with Soviet leaders facing the rising cultural influence of the United States, after the ouster of Nikita Khrushchev, First Secretary Leonid Brezhnev and Premier Alexei Kosygin tasked a committee to investigate how to reverse the USSR’s declining ideological popularity. Evaluating the profound impact that Western art was having on the global art scene, the committee recommended a course of action as unprecedented as it was strategic, designating the Lithuanian SSR as a special zone for artistic expression. There were a number of reasons why Lithuania was chosen: First, the small Baltic nation—literally the westmost part of the Soviet union—had long been westward looking, but the impenetrability of the Lithuanian language to Russian and the relatively small Russian minority—when compared to Latvia or Estonia—meant that if these developments got out of control, they could be contained. The committee moved slowly and, at first, chose to let Lithuanian architects lead the way. Notably, works like Elena Nijole Bučiūte’s Žemėtvarkos projektavimo instituto rūmai (Institute for the Organisation of Land Exploitation) and Vytautas Čekanauskas’s Parodu rūmai (Art Exhibition House), both built in 1967, received positive reception locally, in Moscow, and abroad. 

The decision to designate the Lithuanian SSR as a special zone for artistic expression signified a clear departure from the norm. It was a move that challenged the traditional model of centralized control over artistic production and expression that had characterized the Soviet cultural policy since the days of Stalin. The Soviet leaders were acutely aware of the potential for art to be a vehicle for dissent and for the expression of ideas that were contrary to the state ideology. Yet, they believed that the potential benefits outweighed the risks. They hoped that by fostering a vibrant and dynamic art scene in the Lithuanian SSR, they could demonstrate the cultural vitality of the Soviet Union, and perhaps even influence the global discourse on art and freedom. The Lithuanian SSR was thrust into the limelight. Artists were suddenly given the freedom to explore new artistic currents, to challenge the established norms, and to engage with their counterparts in the West. The impact of this decision on the Lithuanian art scene was profound and transformative, marking the beginning of a new chapter in the country’s cultural history.

Already as early as the mid 1960s, American Fluxus leader George Maciunas reached out to his Lithuanian counterparts—notably composer Vytautas Landsbergis—to establish links between New York and Vilnius (see, for example, this 1991 article in Artforum by Nam Jun Paik). Maciunas would struggle to return to Lithuania, his efforts at obtaining a visa always subtly thwarted by Moscow authorities, who believed his brand of art could ignite ideological difficulties, but nevertheless, he managed to secure visits in the early 1970s from Western artists, notably Joseph Beuys, photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard (who photographed peasants in the countryside), and land artist Robert Smithson.

Exit full screenEnter Full screen
previous arrow
previous arrow
next arrow
next arrow

Ralph Eugene Meatyard, photographs from Lithuanian countryside, taken and exhibited 1970

Exit full screenEnter Full screen
previous arrow
previous arrow
next arrow
next arrow

Robert Smithson exhibit, Vilnius, Lithuania, 1971

Exit full screenEnter Full screen
previous arrow
previous arrow
next arrow
next arrow

Joseph Beuys Exhibit, “Labas Rytas, Lietuva,” Vilnius, 1972

For Lithuanian artists, this newfound freedom was a double-edged sword. On one hand, it provided an opportunity to break free from the shackles of socialist realism and to explore a multitude of artistic currents prevalent in the West. On the other hand, it posed new challenges as they had to navigate this unfamiliar artistic landscape while still operating within the overarching political framework of the USSR. Brilliantly, the directorship of the Lithuanian Artists’ Union understood this danger and encouraged artists to work in anonymity, under pseudonyms or in groups, a process which they claimed avoided the bourgeois cult of the individual, but that also protected them from trouble should the winds of politics change. For six years, from 1970 to 1976, the Artist’s Union organized annual thematic exhibitions that received remarkable attention in both the local scene and in the West, even as they were hardly known in the larger Soviet Union or East Bloc due to concerns about the ideological content of the work. 

Exit full screenEnter Full screen
previous arrow
previous arrow
next arrow
next arrow

1970. Objektai/Objects

The 1970 show was an ambitious start to the cycle of annual exhibitions, itself inspired by the 1966 Primary Structures Show as well as by Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes. Giving this work an appropriate didactic Marxist twist, artists set out to critique the processes of production, consumption, and overaccumulation in society. Exhibit halls throughout Vilnius were filled with large stacks of blank boxes and museum storage areas were opened to visitors. The show proved wildly popular with artists but confounded both the public and the authorities, who urged caution and discipline in future exhibits.  

DALL·E 2023-10-13 11.38.32 – street in vilnius lithuania
Exit full screenEnter Full screen
previous arrow
previous arrow
next arrow
next arrow

1971. Kibernetica/Cybernetics

Hoping to appeal to sympathetic forces in the nomenclatura, the Artists’ Union invited Aksel Ivanovich Berg, Soviet scientist and head of the Scientific Council on Complex Problems in Cybernetics to lecture on the topic to artists who would then work on the theme throughout the city. Unsure of how to apply the problems of cybernetics to art, Berg—who was also a radio engineer—showed a slide of Nicolas Schöffer’s Tour Cybernétique (Cybernetic Tower) in Liège, Belgium, a project that responded to data from its environment. Artists constructed their own interpretations of the Tour Cybernétique throughout Vilnius and added other interpretations of how art might engage with the topic, including an early work of sound art that Landsbergis included in the show. Returning to see the show, Berg was puzzled by the work, but glad for the attention to his field. 

Exit full screenEnter Full screen
previous arrow
previous arrow
next arrow
next arrow

1972. Mokslas/Science

Seeing the potential for aligning the exhibits with themes popular with the government, the Artists’ Union tried again in 1972, this time with science, building on Lithuania’s role as a major research center for electronics. Nevertheless, the display of a  crashed mock-up of a space capsule proved highly controversial in the wake of the fatal 1971 accident of Soyuz 11 (no Russian crewed spacecraft flew again until 1973) and the overall Soviet failure to reach the moon. Leaders of the Artists’ Union were accused of subversion and only high-level interventions by sympathetic Politburo members saved the experiment.       

Exit full screenEnter Full screen
previous arrow
previous arrow
next arrow
next arrow

1973. Feminizmas/Feminist Art

With fingers burned, the Artists’ Union set out on a surprisingly risky path, an exhibit of feminist art. This proved wildly successful in the West and did not lead to terrible consequences back home, although as with the 1970 Objects show, the conceptual nature of the show meant it was confusing to locals. Feminism proved to be a risk worth taking and inaugurated a series of shows in which both organizers and artists flew ever closer to the sun. 

Exit full screenEnter Full screen
previous arrow
previous arrow
next arrow
next arrow

1974. Televizija/Television

Hoping to finally reach the public more broadly, the 1974 exhibit revolved around the phenomenon of television. Television, by this point, had become popular in the USSR and Lithuania was a major center of television manufacture in the Soviet Union. Video art had become popular in the West and the Television exhibit sought to capitalize on the phenomenon while critiquing the televisual spectacle. Echoes of both the Objects and Science shows could be felt in this exhibit, which achieved reasonable success with the local populace and authorities. 

Exit full screenEnter Full screen
previous arrow
previous arrow
next arrow
next arrow

1975. Aplinka/Environment

1975 saw the beginning of the end of conceptual art in 1970s Lithuania. The construction of the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant, which had begun in 1974, had led to widespread discontent, and the Environment theme was co-opted into a protest by a group of young artists against nuclear power. Although the project drew more attention than ever from the West, inspiring protests against nuclear power and chemical contamination in West Germany and the United Kingdom, it unsettled the Soviet authorities and they placed the Artists’ Union on notice that their methods were becoming ideologically unsound.     

Exit full screenEnter Full screen
previous arrow
previous arrow
next arrow
next arrow

1976. Vaiduokliai/Ghosts

During the organization phase of the 1976 exhibit, which was initially supposed to be on abstraction, the Artists’ Union was notified that this was the last in the series of experimental art projects. The controversy over the Environment exhibit had proven to be too great and the program had earned the disapproval of Brezhnev himself. As a coda, the organizers swiftly rethought the theme around the concept of ghosts and haunting. Many of the works were of a strange, abstract quality, with fabric scrim and translucent panels suspended throughout the exhibition halls. “Paintings” made of oxidized steel lent the exhibit a further funereal air. 

In the fashion of failed Soviet experiments, the exhibits of the 1970s were not spoken of again, at least not in public, and it would take until Lithuanian Independence and the foundation of the Contemporary Art Centre by Kestutis Kuizinas in the early 1990s for conceptual art to find a new, more permanent home in Vilnius, but at some level, these experiments were never forgotten and helped give rise to a new generation of radical artists.

This is the second of three drafts of Critical AI Art works that I am publishing this week. AI Art that seeks to do something, not just create NFTs for profit is incredibly time-consuming and like the first piece on Pierre Lecouille, this project took months to of work to this date. For my friends in Lithuania, this piece, in particular, is likely to seem incomplete and I fully accept that. But as I stated in the afterward to the Lecouille piece, the rapid development of AI image generators—not to mention the kitsch being produced by them—means that sitting on this work for longer will simply make it stale, so here it is, incomplete but in the public sphere.

As with all of my AI Art pieces, this work began with an experiment in prompting. Initially, the images returned did not resemble Vilnius or art that I could ever envision in Lithuania. Over time, however, Midjourney has proven much better at producing uncannily appropriate imagery. Once a basic outline emerged and I could begin refining this work, it developed a threefold significance for me. First, it points to the impossibility of work like this in the repressive atmosphere of Soviet-occupied Lithuania in the 1970s. Imagine what radical thought has been lost to the machinery of oppression. Second, the rewriting of history recalls the chronic desire to rewrite history (and to fake imagery) in the Soviet Union and, to a lesser but still real extent, in post-Independence Lithuania and the West in general. Finally, this work has a personal meaning to me, a spirit photography of an era of art that I knew only as a child in 1970s America and that I nevertheless miss deeply as well as a country that always existed as a lost Other until I finally was able to visit in 1991. There is no word for “Ostalgie” in Lithuanian as there is in Germany, since the Soviet times were, for Lithuania, a time of great oppression by a foreign power—unlike East Germany, which was very much the jewel in the crown for the East Bloc—and this is not that, rather  this project is, finally and foremost, a way of working with the way a particular place and time has haunted me over the years.


Pierre leCouille: Visionary Architect

In 1770, Pierre Lecouille was born in the small Burgundian village of Montagny-les-Beaune. He was destined to become one of France’s most visionary architects and draftsmen although he has been little known until recently. Inspired by Phillippe Duboy’s book on Jean-Jacques Lequeu, I have become interested in this period and, in turn, the work of Lecouille, a close contemporary of Lequeu.

The son of a winemaker, Pierre’s artistic talents were evident from an early age. He would spend hours sketching the rolling vineyards and charming villages that surrounded his childhood home, capturing the interplay of light and shadow on the landscape with an uncanny precision. Pierre’s natural talent caught the eye of a visiting Parisian architect, Henri de Gévaudan, who was struck by the young boy’s ability to convey not just the physical reality of the landscape, but also the underlying emotional tenor of the scenes he depicted. Recognizing the potential in the young artist, Gévaudan took him under his wing and brought him to Paris.

In Paris, Pierre was exposed to the works of visionary architects Étienne-Louis Boullée and Claude-Nicolas Ledoux.. Profoundly moved by their daring designs, which sought to encapsulate the ideals of the Enlightenment in built form, Pierre was inspired to take his own work in a similar direction. As a young designer, his diaries reveal a mind preoccupied with death and he turned out fantastically inventive funerary monuments, which he even turned into a lucrative occupation for a brief period of time. Although most of the cenotaphs he designed were of the sort of scale a minor courtier or gentleman might build for himself, others were of vast size, resembling Egyptian pyramids and intended to honor kings and powerful advisors.  

Exit full screenEnter Full screen
previous arrow
previous arrow
next arrow
next arrow

As France was swept up in the turmoil of the French Revolution, Lecouille proved his ideological flexibility, turning on a dime to design vast prisons to house the enemies of the revolution and, more menacingly, developing his Éclabousser, or splattering machine, an alternative to the guillotine based on the a press for extracting juice out of grapes that proved quite unpopular because it was far more like the barbaric breaking wheel that the guillotine was supposed to replace, even if it did have the advantage of turning the deceased into pulp (which he called “veau” or veal) that would then be mixed with gypsum to encourage the growth of grapevines (this did not work). 

Exit full screenEnter Full screen
previous arrow
previous arrow
next arrow
next arrow

Lecouille survived the Revolution and found himself drawn to the radical ideas of social reformers. In the 1810s, he was among the first to embrace the theories of Charles Fourier. Fourier’s concept of the phalanstery—a utopian community designed to foster cooperation and mutual support among its inhabitants—resonated deeply with his own architectural and social vision. Lecouille devoted himself to the creation of a series of visionary architectural designs for his own interpretation of Fourier’s phalansteries. His drawings, executed in delicate washes of sepia ink and watercolor, depicted vast, monumental structures that seemed to emerge from the landscape itself.

Exit full screenEnter Full screen
previous arrow
previous arrow
next arrow
next arrow

Lecouille’s innovative designs drew upon the architectural principles of the ancient world, but they were also infused with a distinctly modern sensibility. He believed that architecture should not only be beautiful but should also serve the needs of society and contribute to the happiness and well-being of its inhabitants. In his utopian communities, Lecouille imagined a world in which the divisions of social class and wealth were erased, and people lived together in harmony and mutual support.

Like Jean-Jacques Lequeu, Lecouille not only worked in architecture, he also conducted physiognomic studies, drawing a series of disturbing faces which were long thought to be inmates from an asylum but are now understood to be images of other architects, their wives, and even self-portraits.   

Exit full screenEnter Full screen
previous arrow
previous arrow
next arrow
next arrow

Though Pierre Lecouille’s visionary designs were never realized during his lifetime, his work has left a lasting impact on the world of architecture and urban planning. His drawings and writings, which were published posthumously in a folio entitled “Les Rêves d’un Architecte” (The Dreams of an Architect), continue to inspire architects and urban planners to this day.

Pierre le Couille passed away on October 9th, 1845, leaving behind a legacy of incredible, visionary designs that have since become emblematic of the utopian aspirations of the Enlightenment. His work remains a testament to the power of architecture to not only reflect but also shape the society it serves, and to the enduring dream of a more harmonious, egalitarian world.

This is the first of three drafts of Critical AI Art Projects that I am going to send out this week. I have been working too long on getting more thorough descriptions of these out the door, and, after talking with my good friend Lev Manovich, I realize that perfection is our enemy here. By the time the text is improved, the image generation technology will be too (although not always: most of these were made with Midjourney 4, version 5 being a bit of a step back) and a vicious spiral starts. This text and these images aren’t exactly where I’d like them to be, but it’s a start. I’ve revised the other projects substantially since I published them and sitting on these won’t get them moving forward. 

Like all of my Critical AI Art projects, Pierre Lecouille doesn’t exist, except as the output of an AI image generator. But in Lequeu: An Architectural Enigma, Philippe Duboy suggests that Marcel Duchamp fabricated Jean-Jacques Lequeu’s drawings while he worked at the Bibliothèque nationale de France from 1913 to 1914 (Lequeu’s name turns out to be a dig at Duchamp’s arch-nemesis, Le Corbusier, LeQ (“the dick”) to LeC, but also sounds remarkably like L.H.O.O.Q). I had the privilege to see the drawings attributed to Lequeu at the Morgan Library in 2020, right before COVID closed down the city. It was a delight, but it also made me receptive to Duboy’s (otherwise controversial and often-dismissed) thesis. Some of the images seemed much more like something Duchamp would do than anything I could imagine from Lequeu’s era. 

Lequeu/Duchamp demonstrate the construction at the heart of histories, including histories of art and architecture. Historians are storytellers, weaving histories that can be as much fiction as fact. Who really knows if Lequeu’s work was a great deception by Duchamp, or if Duboy’s work was the deception? Historians—and readers of history—create their own meanings and interpretations of history. Thinking of Roland Barthes S/Z for a moment, we might recall his juxtaposition of “readerly” texts that don’t challenge the reader to participate in the creation of a text’s meaning with “writerly” texts that invite readers to actively construct meaning.Lecouille suggests that the history of architecture can be writerly, a way of parrying an architecture history that has grown old and is unable to accept new interpretations (except as dictated by academic politics) as well as counteracting the popular and simplistic use of AI in the architectural academy that envisions creating furry or feathery blobs. Let’s investigate AI image generators for what they are, a glimpse into our collective unconscious. 


About that AI Photography award controversy and a Minor Update on AI Imagery in General

A couple of weeks ago, there was a flurry of news (for example, the Guardian) on how Boris Eldagsen refused the World Photography Organization’s Sony World Photography Award in the Creative Open category that he won for his AI image “The Electrician.” As the Guardian piece notes, Eldagsen’s intent was to question whether the competition would accept AI Art blithely and, prior to being announced as a winner, he made it clear (as his site does) to the competition organizers that the work was AI-generated.

Let’s look at the photograph for a minute. I suppose I shouldn’t reproduce it here without permission (I’ve asked and will add it if I get a positive response). You can view it on the artist’s site which gives an idea of his work in context.

Eldagsen’s description of the series this belongs to, Pseudomnesia, interests me. The term is Greek for pseudo-memory or fake memory, and of course AI imagery is ideal for creating fake memories. In that sense, his work is not unlike my Critical AI Art project, although I would like to know more about the intent behind the specific imagery. The artist explains, “Just as photography replaced painting in the reproduction of reality, AI will replace photography. Don’t be afraid of the future. It will just be more obvious that our mind always created the world that makes it suffer.” Eldagsen is an enthusiast of AI image generation (what he dubs “promptography”) and he argues that it should have a separate category in competitions such as this one.

Questions arise immediately. Were the judges aware it was an AI-generated photograph? If not, why were they judges in a photography competition? The hands are clearly off, with fingernails only appropriate for Joan Crawford, Disney villainesses, and strippers. There is an over-smoothed aspect to parts of the image and then other parts are grainy, giving the image an uncanny-valley feel. The surface damage is strange: one of the scratches appears to be a reflection in framing glass. From a narrative point of view, it doesn’t make much sense. It looks like the woman on the right is getting her clothes adjusted, but why is the other woman cowering behind her? Whose hand is the top right one? Is this last-minute preparations for a wedding or an execution (the image is intended to be in “the visual language of the 1940s”)? Why is it called “the Electrician”? I suppose those enigmas are part of the attraction to the image.

As far as the competition goes, I’ve never heard of it before. The work that they award (reflective of is submitted?) tends to rather boring, the sort of thing found in photography magazines that have lots of product reviews and are read by people who have never heard of New Topographics, but operate websites selling giclée prints. At least there wasn’t much HDR, itself a scourge on the arts. I wonder if the judges were aware that the photograph was generated by Dall-E when they deliberated these works? Possibly not. If they were aware, I’d think they would say so, but in this interview, Eldagsen states “I thanked them later for choosing an AI-generated image and they were all quiet because they did not really want to talk about it.” Again, most of the premiated work isn’t fine art photography, at least nothing I would be interested in, but rather merely technically proficient. What were the criteria for selection? All unclear. Eldagsen neither mentions that he fooled the judges nor that the discovery of this work as AI led to his refusal of the prize, so it’s hard to tell. Nevertheless, his own goal appears to emulate Marcel Duchamp’s submission of a urinal he titled “Fountain” to the 1917 Society of Independent Artists Exhibition and his subsequent resignation from the Society after they refused to acknowledge the urinal as art. Instead of outrage, however, the interview points out the competition’s comic ineptness at communication and publicity management, something which Eldagsen is clearly better at.

Regarding AI image generation, Eldagsen is correct. There is no stuffing the genie back in the bottle. AI image generators and filters are here and already defining photography and art in general. But when we think about the vast amount of imagery produced by smart phones—much more than with digital cameras—we already do produce most of our imagery via AI, as this blog post from Apple shows. Although the iPhone’s photographic ability is seductive, it is also very much the product of built-in machine learning algorithms and, in trying to achieve an ideal image, permanently sacrifices accuracy for image quality, something Kyle Chayka points out in this article at the New Yorker. The result, for many, is indeed self-inflicted suffering: filters and machine learning algorithms are leading people to experience body dysmorphia and then drawn, in the manner of the Kardashians, to seek needless, disfiguring surgery or suicide (see Elle Hunt’s piece in the Guardian).

Such ruminations quickly get us into the territory of philosophy and cognitive science. Our brains already apply processing to vision, for example in masking the “mini-blackouts” from blinking and apply something akin to a physics-based video stabilization to smooth out movement.

Thinking about AI image processors, I am floored by how fast they have developed during the last year. Eldagsen made his image “in 2022 with early Dall-E,” which is vastly inferior to what can be done with Midjourney 5 these days. Take three examples from summer 2022, when I was exploring a series about a fictional visit to Lithuania by photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard. All are produced with Dall-E.

While they recall the Lithuanian countyside and Meatyard’s approach, they break down in many places, glitching in ways I quite like. The second image and third images are poorly framed. The landscape in the third image becomes too geometric. The rightmost figure in the third image is microcephalic and perhaps leperous. And so on.

Here are some new examples. I didn’t spend long on them. These are hardly finished in my book. It wouldn’t be hard to take them into Photoshop and get them to match Meatyard’s work better. I may yet do that, as I am pondering a piece on an alternate history of Lithuanian art between 1965 and 1980.

The situation with painting is even more dramatic. Take my Doggerland project.

Much as I love this primitistic image of Cnut VI’s lament made with Dall-E in August of 2022, compare it to either of the images I made last night with Midjourney. Again, I haven’t spent any time with Photoshop or inpainting.

Inpainting would take care of that child crushed under Cnut’s coracle-throne and it could be good to muck up the water and clean up the sky a bit.

Well, ok, so in this painting we see Jesus not Cnut, but still it’s a pretty amazing image overall, nothing that some inpainting can’t cure.

I am now faced with decisions about my Critical AI Art projects. While the Witching Cats and Boxmaker works were done with second generation AI image generation services, Doggerland and the Canals of Vilnius could be revised. I likely will do so, but this means potentially all of these works could require a lot of maintenance as these services upgrade and image generation increases in quality.

Constant upgrades have been the case with photography for some time as well. My current generation of cameras, able to capture at least 40 megapixels and, in the case of my workhorses, the Sony A7RV or Leica M11, over 60mp (not to mention the Fuji GFX100S), now have enough resolution that I can’t imagine needing more. Of course 24mp seemed like plenty just a few years ago when I primarily shot with a Fuji X-Pro2, but prints have been growing in size as a glance at photography shows demonstrates. Big prints mean higher resolution. And, so earlier images need to be upscaled using Topaz Gigapixel AI.

As I’ve stated before, like most photography, most AI image generation is quite bad and seeing images of Emma Watson, Cannabis Goddess of Mars [*]or whatever nonsense users of these image generators produce will discourage the more weak-spirited from exploring their potential. No doubt many artists will re-entrench in traditional media such as painting, sculpture, video, film, or film photography (while my father would have been shocked to hear me call film photography a traditional art form, acrylic paints, which he used, are a century newer than photography). The Right, which barely makes anything that can be considered art, will seek to make “trad” art, while the Left will make angry paintings about identity to provoke them. But those are both rearguard movements. Media are developing more rapidly than any time in my entire life. Artists and critics need to engage AI image generators critically on their own terms, not lament for simpler times.

On the matrix (native plants, that is)

It’s spring, which is the best time for my woodland native plant garden. We live on a steep slope (50′ of elevation change over a 150′ run!) and part of it (the area on the right) gets a bit of direct sun from mid-morning into the early afternoon. The low-quality soil, destroyed by construction and decades of neglect had been planted with invasive Berberis thunbergii (Japanese barberry) bushes and Pachysandra terminalis (Japanese pachysandra) groundcover. This is our house in 2011, when we bought it. It’s a remarkably unappealing view. The house itself looks rather sad, with a terrible DIY attempt at obliterating the rare mahogany siding with solid stain and an ill-chosen salmon base above a bare red stone gravel bed.

The pachysandra largely died out during a blight and, not knowing what I was doing, I transplanted Vinca minor (Periwinkle) from elsewhere on the property to replace it. As I began to learn more about the importance of using native plants, I began planting woodland ephemerals in shady spots. Leaving the leaves and breaking up smaller sticks and twigs to decay where they fell has done a remarkable amount to revive my soil. Plants have about twice as a high a survival rate as they did just five years ago. My technique has something to do with this, but I suspect that beneficial mycorrhizae created by the decaying plant matter has a lot to do with it. In a woodland condition, scientists consider the top layer of soil to start at the ‘litter layer’ or O horizon.

In other words, don’t let contractors destroy your property by “landscraping” like you see on the left. This is really bad. It looks stupid and, with the top layer of forest soil literally stripped away, the humus-rich topsoil will dry up and blow off in the wind, exposing subsoil in a matter of years.

Over under the eaves of the house, we replaced the dead zone of rock with soil that we filled with Mertensia virginica (Virginia bluebells) and Dennstaedtia punctiluba (Hay-scented fern). The idea is that the hay-scented fern will form a dense mat in the middle of the summer. It’s not a great native plant, as it will create a thick monoculture that doesn’t perform any real ecosystem services for insects or other animals, but as we have a half-acre (0.2 hectares), there’s plenty of room for that elsewhere. The bluebells provide an early burst of interest, before the ferns come out in May and melt away by June.

I suppose it’s worth noting that we have stripped the solid stain off the mahogany façade, applied Proluxe PPG 1-2/3 (in Butternut) and painted the foundation Annapolis Gray. Also, the engineered stone landscaping has been replaced by more natural bluestone paving that I am encouraging moss to grow between (there’s nice little patch starting to the right). The layer of leaf litter only improves the soil and means there is so much less work to do than endlessly blowing out debris from the ugly rocks. Camera buffs will see that it didn’t take long for the Tamron E 35-150 to produce it’s well-known lens flare.

Back to the hillside. Again, this area gets a bit of sun and can be quite hot and dry in the middle of the summer. That said, who is to say that it isn’t the kind of exposed alpine hillside you might see on a mountaintop nearby? In response, starting in 2021, I created a matrix of native plants that has done quite well so far.

The dominant plant in bloom here is Phlox subulata (Moss Phlox), although there is some Phlox stolonifera (Creeping Phlox) in there as well, which has thrived and expanded down into the stone wall that we built in the fall of 2020. Phlox subulata tolerates full sun and hot, dry conditions well and is typically found in dry, sandy or rocky soils. A lot of gardeners, wedded to outdated ways, try to create thick monoculture carpets of this stuff. That’s not a good idea. First, it means that any spot that it doesn’t like to grown in will be unsightly. Second, it is incredibly boring. Many perennials move around, expanding in one area, dying off in another. Instead of endlessly trying to amend and replant, a more modern approach would be to use the concept of “green mulch” developed by Thomas Rainer. Here is an example from Mt. Cuba Center in April 2022:

Here the plants form a dense mat. It’s so much more interesting than the dull monoculture of pachysandra, vinca, or worse yet, mulch that people grow on their properties. And don’t get me started on grass. First, not only is this area too steep and dangerous to mow, but that is the most boring and high maintenance groundcover of all, useful only for high-traffic areas that will be used for sports, dining, or other domestic activities.

Seeking a green mulch for the hillside, I have complimented the Phlox subulata with other natives: Fragraria virginia (Wild Strawberry), Antennaria Neglecta (Field Pussytoes), Antennaria plantagnifolia, (Lady Tobacco), Quilegia canadensis, Wild Columbine, and Sedum Ternatum (Woodland Stonecrop). You can also see an Asplenium platyneuron (Ebony Spleenwort) that I’ve planted into a crevice in the rock wall. There are other plants that will grow in during the season, such as Parthenocissus quinquefolia (Virginia Creeper), a wonderful native vine that can be found for free on my property.

Fragaria virginia is a great groundcover, although there certainly can be large gaps between each plant, so it works well in this context and is happy colonizing the wall. Quilegia canadensis shoots up over the moss and seems quite happy that way. It seems that it’s goal is to colonize the wall and particularly the place at which the wall and the driveway meet.

The Antennarias are strange looking plants, from the Asteraceae family but unlike any asters I know of. They are larval food hosts for the American Painted Lady butterfly, which is fine by me. The leaves are a very light green, with white elements and the blooms, which are supposed to resemble cat toes.

There are more Mertensia virginica in the background. Note that the leaf litter compliments the plants visually, forming a background to the living matrix.

In this view, you can see the Sedum, another strange plant. It’s a succulent native to the Northeastern United States. It’s a delight to grow since once a stem breaks, it usually just roots in place. It’s not supposed to like sunny, dry slopes, but it seems to prefer this area to more shaded areas. You take your chances with plants. The only plant that I have tried planting here and have apparently failed with is Saxifraga virginiensis (Early Saxifrage and why on earth are there three separate specific epithets virginiensis, virginica, and virginiana all meaning the same thing?). Over on the left is an Allium cernuum, or Nodding onion, which will provide a spectacular display later in the year. Many of these plants—the Phlox, Sedum and Antennaria are evergreen—or at least are in part, so

One last thing, in 2021, I covered this area with arborist woodchips. This is a near-miraculous mulch and one of the few worth using. Arborist woodchips are the remnants of smaller branches, often with leaves, processed through a wood chipper. Arborist woodchips are ugly, but they are free (just ask any arborist and they will gladly drop them off) and the rapidly rotting material quickly adds mycorrhizae to the soil. Luckily, they remain unsightly for only a brief period of time, until they turn color. Maybe best to put them down in late summer when you go on vacation and before leaves fall?

The hillside matrix gives me pleasure to view daily. It’s still early in this process and it will be interesting to see what happens over the years as the area evolves.

trip report: southern Iceland

We went on a trip to Iceland last week, visiting Reykjavik and Southern Iceland. Reykjavik is remarkably small for a European capital, population 122,853 (2016 source: UN). That’s smaller than the population of the suburb of Montclair, New Jersey, in which I live, plus the adjacent suburb of Clifton, NJ. Now Clifton is twice the size of Montclair, but still. Reykjavik has a population density of 510/km^2 while Montclair’s is 2,532.8/km^2. (Wikipedia is my data source for this and most other data in this article). The downtown area is low-rise with no really tall buildings. Much of the population lives in low-density suburbs. I mention this to underscore how daft the vehemently anti-suburban discourse inherent in architectural discussion is, something I’ve been harping on since the mid-1990s.

The rest of Iceland is extremely low density due to the massive areas made uninhabitable by both past and future lava flows as well as glaciers (Iceland ranks 240th out of 248 among countries in terms of density, with only 376,248 inhabitants in a country the size of the state of Ohio, bigger than South Korea, the entire island of Ireland, just a little smaller than Lithuania plus Estonia). I was surprised that Iceland doesn’t have significant mineral wealth. The only major resource it has—besides fresh water—is geothermal power. Apparently, only 10% of the country’s geothermal energy is being converted to usable power, a number that seems quite high to me given how few geothermal plants we saw. Over 99% of the country’s energy needs are met by geothermal energy, although Iceland has only made moderate progress toward electric vehicles yet. As Tesla owners, we thought about renting one for the trip, but the number and distribution of high-speed chargers seemed a bit low. We had a BMW X1 hybrid and only saw one place to plug it in on our trip, but that was occupied so we never got to charge the battery which could only go 50km (31 miles) per charge, ludicrous for a 950km (500 mile) trip. It got a lousy 7.4 l/100km(32 mpg), significantly higher energy consumption than an electric-only vehicle. That said, according to Wikipedia, 12% of the country’s fleet is electrified, which isn’t bad, but once we got out of the immediate area of the city, these virtually disappeared. I’m sure with time, this will change. Low-cost geothermal energy had an uncomfortable side in that it requires centralized heating plants and, as usual in places that have those, like Vilnius, larger universities, and parts of New York City, heat is poorly regulated and hard to control. All but one of our seven hotels were far too hot. I am not sure why this is. It seems easy enough to regulate temperature via a thermostat controlling a valve. Even a manually-operated valve would work. Opening windows every night was frustrating and the alteration of hot and cold temperatures when a draft blew in was not what is meant by sauna culture. Conversations during a long delay at our departure gate at the airport confirmed that other people had the same experience. That said, apparently Icelanders have a saying “In Iceland, it is 25 degrees (77F) year-round… inside!” Not fun for someone not used to such warm temperatures. A strange aside: cars tend to be large and parking spots tend to be sub-compact, even in rural areas. Our 2022 rental already had major dings on both doors. Inexplicable.

Icelandic culture is certainly outsized given the small population, but the main attraction, as its inhabitants recognize, is the sublime landscape. Recall that for Edmund Burke, “Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.” Although Burke was really talking about erupting volcanos and lightning strikes, in everyday aesthetic theory the sublime has generally referred to something that creates awe and feels overwhelming, as opposed to the beautiful, which is pleasing to the senses.

Kötlujökull glacier

But there is real terror in the Icelandic landscape, as anyone who spends hours driving through a lava field laid down by an active volcano will experience. We indulged in some eco-tourism by taking a “super-Jeep” up to Kötlujökull glacier so we could tour Katla Ice Cave. It was just above freezing and raining so we became extremely wet, with even my Schoeller Dryskin pants soaking through. The ice cave was impressive, but the experience of being in the starkly monochromatic landscape at the edge of the glacier was sublime: alternating bands of ice, gritty black lava sand, and volcanic ash. The scenes from Mann’s planet in Interstellar were filmed on a glacier in Iceland.

Kötlujökull glacier

The beaches of Southern Iceland are also sublime, composed of some 350 km (200 miles) of black sand coast, an unrelenting emptiness caused by the frequent, ongoing volcanic eruptions. Nothing seems to grow here. The Apollo astronauts trained in areas like this on the island and I couldn’t help but think that while I would still gladly spend some time in an orbiting hotel, watching the Earth below, these places quenched any fantastical desire I still had to go to the moon or Mars. The barrenness of these landscapes was sublime, but also a bit depressing and oppressive in a way that a forest or a meadow, in their diversity, could never be. The Icelandic terrain underscores how remarkable and precarious the evolution of life has been. Colonizing the Moon and Mars is unlikely to proceed quickly. After a period of time, the lack of flora would get to even the most committed geologist. Plants are a treasure. An hour in emptiness seems like enough.

Sólheimasandur beach
Svínafellsjökull glacier and glacial outflow pond.

Seeing the outflow pond at Svínafellsjökull glacier and the outflow lagoon at Jökulsárlón was a goal of the trip as it showed what Glacial Lake Passaic, the absent subject of my Wastelands photo essay, would have looked like 14,000 years ago. Much of North America and Europe looked like this. As it did then, so in Iceland too, plant and animal life found a way. We heard birdsong at Svínafellsjökul and there were seals bobbing up from time to time at Jökulsárlón.

Eldhraun Lava Field

Mosses and lichens cover a large part of the old lava field called Eldhraun, caused by the Skaftáreldar (The Skaftá River Fires), a cataclysmic eruption that lasted from 1783 to 1784 that had terrible consequences for the island and appears to have had a devastating effect on the entire world as well. One day the lava will stop flowing here and succession will start again. And if the volcanic eruptions are devastating, Iceland would not have risen up from between the continental plates of North America and Europe a mere 15 million years ago.

Overlook, Suðurlandsvegur

If the landscape looks like a desolate wilderness, like the fabled Fertile Crescent of Mesopotamia, Iceland has been subject to massive harm from human activity. Between 25 and 40% of the land was covered in forest when Vikings first arrived, a forest composed mainly of downy birch (Betula pubescens) that, given the harshness of the climate only grew up to about 15m in height. Other trees, like tea-leaved willow (Salix phylifolia), usually grew as shrubs. Settlement meant cutting down some 95% of the forests to create pasture for sheep and to provide wood for construction and fuel. As at the Fertile Crescent, however, soil cover was thin (see the Icelandic Forestry Service for more). Continued grazing has meant that thin soil is prone to blowing away during sandstorms. Only recently have efforts been made to plant forests again, but in the subarctic climate the process will be slow. The deforested areas of Iceland are “wet deserts” in which life is sparse. Forests are necessary to store carbon to mitigate the effects of climate change, to stabilize and build soils, and to provide a rich ecosystem. In a NYT article, Saemundur Thorvaldsson, a government forester states, “The aim now is that in the next 50 years we might go up to 5 percent covered in forest,” he said. “But at the speed we’re at now, it would take 150 years to do that.”

Elsewhere, change is much easier. In more temperate climates like most of the United States, Ireland and Great Britain (both of which have had massive deforestation… Ireland was once 80% forested and is now 11%) or Europe, it is entirely possible to bring back forests within a generation. A tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera) that sprouted as a seedling on a barren hillside on my property some eight years ago is now well over twenty feet tall; the entire hillside should be covered in them by now, but previous property owners employed biophobic “landscapers” who weeded them out and put down down mulch and pachysandra instead, creating a suburban desert with no diversity. I have planted dozens of trees on my half-acre of property in suburban New Jersey. Change is possible. Glaciers and lava fields are places where we can witness the sublime, but in everyday life, let’s rewild our landscapes and find room for the beautiful again.

art and the boxmaker

Over the winter holiday, I noticed William Gibson‘s Mastodon account went quiet after a few posts. No explanation, but like many people who seemed ready to leave Twitter after Elon Musk purchased it, he reverted to his old account where I found this exchange.

Twitter has devolved entirely into virtue-signaling, regardless of one’s political position so, initially I thought that Gibson was simply agreeing, but this also seemed odd (“weird as hell?”) coming from him since his Neuromancer trilogy expressly addressed the creation of art by Artificial Intelligence. Take Count Zero, in which the Boxmaker, an AI in a forgotten high-orbit space station, assembles works in the style of Joseph Cornell so convincing that they are taken as real before being revealed as forgeries. Just possibly, they might look something like this.

this is not a cornell box
this is not a cornell box
this is not a cornell box
this is not a cornell box
this is not a cornell box
this is not a cornell box
this is not a ccrnell box
this is not a cornell box
this is not a cornell box
this is not a cornell box
this is not a cornell box
this is not a cornell box
Exit full screenEnter Full screen
previous arrow
next arrow

Of course, in its present form, an AI image generator* is a tool, not so much an Artificial Intelligence, but rather a desiring machine—an algorithm that combines images in ways it predicts will satisfy us. AI image generators have no inherent intelligence or understanding of how these things go together, they are nothing more than programs that desire connection in ways that have been conditioned over time, “cognition” at the level of an insect seeking a red flower or perhaps a virus “seeking” a host. This is obviously, very different from Joseph Cornell, an artist of deep talent, capable of creating works that fostered emotional connection.

But what about the Boxmaker in Count Zero? On the one hand, the Boxmaker is capable of making works that are supposed to be enthralling. Take this passage from the novel in which disgraced art dealer Marly Krushkova (disgraced because she tried to sell a work by the Boxmaker as one of Cornell’s) encounters a hologram of one of the Boxmaker’s works.

… she took the package to the window and turned it over in her hands. It was wrapped in a single sheet of handmade paper, dark gray, folded and tucked in that mysterious Japanese way that required neither glue nor string, but she knew that once she’d opened it, she’d never get it folded again. The name and address of the Galerie were embossed in one comer, and her name and the name of her hotel were handwritten across the center in perfect italic script. She unfolded the paper and found herself holding a new Braun holoprojector and a flat envelope of clear plastic. The envelope contained seven numbered tabs of holofiche. Beyond the miniature iron balcony, the sun was going down, painting the Old Town gold. She heard car horns and the cries of children. She closed the window and crossed to a writing desk. The Braun was a smooth black rectangle powered by solar cells. She checked the charge, then took the first holo fiche from the envelope and slotted it.

The box she’d seen in Virek’s simulation of the Güell Park blossomed above the Braun, glowing with the crystal resolution of the finest museum-grade holograms. Bone and circuit-gold, dead lace, and a dull white marble rolled from clay. Marly shook her head. How could anyone have arranged these bits, this garbage, in such a way that it caught at the heart, snagged in the soul like a fishhook? But then she nodded. It could be done, she knew; it had been done many years ago by a man named Cornell, who’d also made boxes.

For Krushkova, the Boxmaker’s works are evidence not of a trained machine but of the creation of aura, emotional connection, and nostalgia from simple objects—something far ahead of any mere Turing test, a spark of the divine at work. Strangely, it’s that the Cornell boxes are convincing enough to be forgeries—e.g. not original art, but rather pastiches of no originality, the work of the academic, the dilettante, the poseur, the forger—that is, for Gibson/Krushkova, somehow evidence of greatness. This doesn’t ever seem to be explained or resolved in the novel, but in an interview three years after the book’s publication, Gibson explains why he has the Boxmaker in Count Zero copy Cornell:

WG: If I was doing a thesis on my work, I would try to figure out what the fuck that Joseph Cornell stuff means in the middle of Count Zero. That’s the key to the whole fucking thing, how the books are put together and everything. But people won’t see it. I think it actually needs someone with a pretty serious art background to understand it. You know, Robert Longo understood that immediately. I was in New York—I’ve got a lot of fans who are fairly heavy New York artists, sort of “fine art guys,” and they got it right away. They read those books around that core. I was actually trying to tell people what I was doing while I was trying to discover it myself.
DWH: It goes back to postmodernism, to pieces again, and to making new wholes from fragments, doesn’t it?
WG: Yeah. It’s sort of like there’s nothing there in the beginning, and you’re going to make something, and you don’t have anything in you to make it out of, particularly, so you start just grabbing little hunks of kipple, and fitting them together, and … (laughing) I don’t know, it seemed profound at the time, but this morning it’s like I can’t even remember how it works.

source: Darren Wershler-Henry, “Queen Victoria’s Personal Spook, Psychic Legbreakers, Snakes, and Catfood: An Interiew with William Gibson,” Virus 23, Issue 0 (Fall 1989): 28-36.

In another interview, Gibson states that he decided to write books in homage to artists he “particularly loved or admired.” (“William Gibson Interviewed by David Wallace-Wells, The Art of Fiction,” Paris Review, No. 211). Perhaps Gibson choose Cornell because the artist’s boxes recapitulate cabinets of curiosities (Wunderkammer), assemblages of disparate and unusual objects from around the world, intended to provoke a feeling of wonder and enchantment. The famous Musei Wormiana, for example, has turtles, shells, armadillos, crocodiles, deer heads, a narwhal tusk, and other strange things on the walls, while numerous terrifying fish, a bear, and a kayak hang from the ceiling.

1655 – Frontispiece of Museum Wormiani Historia, this work is not AI generated.

This seemingly random assemblage, however, is actually a network of juxtapositions and comparisons intrinsic to the methodology of “natural philosophy” or “philosophy of nature,” a precursor to the scientific method that sought to explain philosophical truths about the world—the macrocosm—by looking at objects—the microcosm. Cornell himself studied natural philosophy from antiquarian books and, like its practitioners, sought kinship between seemingly diverse elements and to produce wonder about the order of the macrocosm from the microcosm.

But cabinets of curiosities also played a particular world-historical role, indicating their assembler’s ability to obtain items from exotic lands in a newly globalizing market. The wonder the Wunderkammer provokes is also wonder at the reach of colonial trade and the ruling classes’ mastery of the world. The things Cornell found, in contrast, were generally obsolete, things could be considered junk, detritus of a recently-bygone civilization, not precious objects but rather cast-offs among the bric-a-brac dealers and junk shops of mid-twentieth century New York City.

this is not a cornell box
this is not a cornell box
this is not a cornell box
this is not a cornell box
this is not a cornell box
this is not a cornell box
this is not a cornell box
this is not a cornell box
Exit full screenEnter Full screen
previous arrow
next arrow

Unlike the works I have produced for this project using Midjourney, an AI image generator, Gibson’s Boxmaker makes art out of physical materials. Nevertheless, contra Cornell, the Boxmaker does not gather materials from junk dealers, rather it returns to the original use of the Wunderkammer to display surplus wealth: this is detritus, but from the high-orbit attic of a fabulously wealthy family—leftover mementos from the Tessier-Ashpool clan—”a yellowing kid glove, the faceted crystal stopper from some vial of vanished perfume, an armless doll with a face of French porcelain, a fat, gold-fitted black fountain pen, rectangular segments of perf board, the crumpled red and green snake of a silk cravat…” Such items would have been fabulously expensive by the 2040s, the decade Count Zero is set in. Wonder, in this world, would be triggered by the thought that such things still exist and that someone would have the wealth to use them to create art, much as one might wonder at finding an early illustrated book used by nineteenth-century children to practice coloring in.

Back to the Wershler-Henry interview again. Gibson talks about the moment when Marly sees the Boxmaker: “Marly follows the map in that book. She’s the only one who can receive the true map and she goes to the heart of it. She gets an audience with God, essentially, and she does it through her own intellectual capacity and her ability to understand the art.”

The Boxmaker, however, is rather like Midjourney, not a general intelligence but a device limited to one task. The “true artist” is not the Boxmaker, it is the Boxmaker’s creator Lady Jane, an eccentric, “stone crazy” last heir of the Tessier-Ashpools. As an off-screen character in Count Zero, her motives are obscure. The forgeries make their way to the market through an underground network full of profit-taking and she sees nothing from them, so why make them except as a wealthy exercise in dilettantism? Cornell thought that viewing his boxes could change lives, but none of this is important in the autistic world of Lady Jane and the Boxmaker. How, then, to reconcile this with Krushkova’s reception of the boxes? Because, frankly, it seems weird as hell.

this is not a cornell box
this is not a cornell box
this is not a cornell box
this is not a cornell box
this is not a cornell box
this is not a cornell box
this is not a cornell box
this is not a cornell box
this is not a cornell box
this is not a cornell box
this is not a cornell box
this is not a cornell box
this is not a cornell box
this is not a cornell box
Exit full screenEnter Full screen
previous arrow
next arrow

Today, we live in an entirely different cultural and computational regime from the mid-1980s (let alone the mid-20th century). Generations have grown up replicating Cornell’s boxes at educational events at museums, in art classes, and for DIY interior decoration. Cornell’s boxes are over-exposed and oversaturated to the point that for many people they have been emptied of wonder themselves. But maybe there is something to Gibson/Krushkova’s awe at the forgeries? Looking for Cornell’s message in his work would be a mistake and there is no meaning behind the (unseen) works of the Boxmaker or behind the work I generated with Midjourney (although crucially, I did intervene as an editor, selecting only some of the images Midjourney produced). And yet, if there is anything that provokes wonder about the works on this page, perhaps it is that we are gazing upon the collective unconscious of humanity as embodied in the datasets. Could AI image generators be a way—not of replacing the artist—but of creating both a new kind of Wunderkammer and a new Surrealism? Perhaps what I am really after is trying to make Cornell look new again, to defamiliarize his world just as he sought to defamiliarize the consumer culture of midcentury America. And making everything “weird as hell” (e.g. ostranenie) again is exactly what art is for.

* My friend Lev Manovich points out that referring to these image generators as art generators is a mistake. This is correct. Midjourney, Dall-E, and Stable Diffusion are not art generators, they are image generators, just as a camera does not make art. They can be used to make art, but that depends on who is manipulating them.

Teaching at the New Centre

I will be teaching a four-class-long seminar at the New Centre entitled “The Age of Computational Desire: Towards a New History of Culture in the 2020s” This is my first time teaching in five years and an entirely new course. My hypothesis, which I first outlined in 2022 my year in review, is that Network Culture is finished. After looking at postmodernism and network culture while inquiring into the validity of this task of periodization, this research seminar asks: what’s next?  It is part of the Post-Planetary Universal Design certificate program run by my brilliant friends Ed Keller & Carla Leitão. A short description (subject to change follows).

The course will run from 1400 to 1630 EST on May 5th, 12th, 19th, 26th and costs $225. You can sign up on the New Centre site. I’ll have more to say about what interests me about the New Centre and why I am willing to teach again after five years of not teaching in another post I hope to have up soon.

The Age of Computational Desire: Towards a New History of Culture in the 2020s

By 2005 “postmodernism” had outlived its usefulness as a theoretical concept for understanding the present time. Instead, others suggested “network culture” and “metamodernism,” as new frameworks to understand a period in which the Internet became central to everyday life, culture, and economy. By 2010, it was clear to thinkers interested in the subject that network culture would last a decade, after which a new constellation would take hold.

This Seminar sketches the technological outlines of the post-COVID era. Old corporate models of network culture, characterized by the five most prominent global technology corporations, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and Google (FAANG) are decaying, cryptocurrencies are questioned and devalued as we see the rapid rise of various forms of Artificial Intelligence that, as yet, have no capacity for inherent cognition but uncannily predict the relationship of immediately-adjacent or related elements. This Seminar probes the consequences of these transformations, tracking how the very structure of networks transformed political forms and discourses. The Seminar asks, can a new political order be constructed around these shifting technological structures? What will this new era’s markets and economies look like?

Session 1: From Postmodernism to Network Culture. Marx, Jameson, and the concept of totality
Session 2: Network Theory. Social Networks, the perils of influence, and the promises of decentralization
Session 3: Artificial Intelligences and computational desire, or Hegel and singularity
Session 4: Jackpot Theory from Dark Accelerationism to Angelicism

2022 in review

I missed the year in review for 2021 entirely. The end of 2021 was stressful: it wasn’t a terrible year, the way the Trumpenjahren were, but it was bad. I ran out of steam and never pulled the post together. Not so this year. I’ve posted once a month on average, which is the most posts since 2016. Most of these were quite long opinion pieces and some, like the Critical AI Art projects took weeks of work to produce. Moreover, posting really began in earnest later in the year after I switched to my new server at Kinsta and my new theme powered by GeneratePress (see here). Not only is the site faster for you, dear reader, but it is also much faster for me to work on. For the first time in years, the future of this blog looks bright.

This post is comprised of four parts: The End of the Covidian, Geopolitical Transitions, Network Culture RIP, the Age of Desiring Machines

I. The End of the Covidian

2022 has been a good year and, although I know some of my readers will disagree, at least half of it felt like we left the pandemic behind. Goodbye to the Covidian era. As I write this, we are off skiing in northern Vermont and while some things still aren’t open and there are longer lines due to staffing shortages, it feels like COVID is over. Everyone in the family except me has had COVID during the last year and nobody got as seriously ill as our youngest did from the flu last month. Now, I’m far from an extremist on this: I have all my vaccines, all the boosters, and have taken reasonable precautions throughout the pandemic. But looking at the statistics, it’s clear that vaccines and herd immunity are here. Pretty much every article I see reposted to raise alarm about the new wave of COVID coming “any day now” declares that we need to watch out for a “troubling new variant,” but there is no troubling new variant, it’s just clickbait. Once there is a troubling new variant, then I’ll worry. In the meantime, this is the new normal. You’ll either be wearing a mask forever—which may be good if you are seriously immunocompromised—or not. Epidemiologists are pretty much always in a constant state of panic about diseases, it’s their training to do so; I’d probably be in a constant state of panic if I knew what they know. Instead, I’ll choose to live my life, which is what most people have done now.

It was always naïve or disingenuous of Dr. Fauci and others to claim that vaccines would utterly eliminate COVID the way Ebola was eliminated, COVID was already too widespread and contagious. But if COVID is, as claimed, a novel coronavirus, the odds are that once the massive and tragic initial impact is over, while it would never disappear, once we achieved a degree of immunity to it, it would be something we could live with in an endemic state, like existing coronaviruses, the new COVID normality. What about long COVID? Sure, it’s real, although many of the studies on long COVID seem quite poor, and instead of fretting about it, maybe we should pay attention to the long-term consequences of all viral infections? I have been struggling with IBS which began after a bad cold forty years ago, and Epstein-Barr, which causes mononucleosis, appears to cause multiple sclerosis. That’s pretty bad right there and while I have immense sympathy for anyone affected by any long viral disease, isolation, and constant masking have very real consequences on human life, particularly on child and adolescent development. We’re done with it and, unless and until something horrible appears, we’ll be living life in most ways as we did before March 2020. The COVID-induced supply chain crisis is largely over. New challenges are emerging, but the Covidian era is (likely) history.

II. Geopolitical Transitions

The biggest news of 2023 was, of course, the invasion of Ukraine. There has been huge suffering for Ukraine in the single largest violation of territorial sovereignty by a foreign power in Europe since World War II. But the Russian Bear stumbled and got badly bloodied. For centuries, Russia has been an awful neighbor, a bully, not a country that plays by the rule of law. Built on kleptocracy and theft at home, the state model for foreign relations is to invade, rape, kill, and exploit ethnic minorities and their sovereign lands to make up for the shortcomings of the kleptocratic Russian economy. As a result, leaders in the Baltics, Poland, and even Ukraine realized that post-cold War Russia was a threat and looked westward, where they might seek protection. Putin might have had a chance to counter this had he struck a decade ago, but for some inexplicable reason, his first excursion into Ukraine was halfhearted and he didn’t complete the task when he had a frightened lapdog as US President.

Corruption, incompetence, and an utter lack of strategic thinking undid the initial Russian thrust and, with help from the US and NATO, Ukraine is not only holding its own, it’s beating back Russian aggression. Russia is resorting to its usual tactics of massive bombardment of civilian positions from a safe distance, but with Ukraine, they’ve encountered a country not only fighting back on its own territory but also lobbing missiles back at Russian bases deep in their territory even as unknown saboteurs are destroying Russian infrastructure. It’s still unclear what the outcome will be or when: the result may simply be a question of who runs out of ammunition first, but Putin’s colossal miscalculation means there is a remarkably high chance it will be in the collapse of the criminal regime of Vladimir Putin. I am zero optimism that the result will be a new, more democratic, peace-loving regime in Russia. On the contrary, the collapse of the remaining empire will lead to a series of internal disputes and civil wars and a decline into a general ungovernability of the sort that has taken over much of the Middle East. Doubtless, China and other smaller powers will also make incursions into Russian territory, whittling away administrative regions for their own purposes. In Moscow and St. Petersburg, the next two decades may feel much more like cyberpunk dystopian versions of their 1990s selves: barely governable cities where the mafia and oligarchs take even more control while ordinary individuals resort to unprecedented measures to survive.

I’ve been to Europe a few times since the invasion and to Lithuania twice. Germany made a tremendous miscalculation under Merkel, allying itself with Russia and drinking deeply of its energy, but that route is going away forever and so is its role as leader of NATO and the EU. France and the UK have also been weakened by their complacency. These are economic empires in decline and—especially if Ukraine wins—a new center for Europe is going to emerge in the East, stretching from the Baltics down through Poland—which will be the most dominant force in this Europe—and into Ukraine. Turkey is already proving a powerhouse, but it is less likely to be a threat than an ally with this new democratic East bloc. This is where the energy in Europe is now: nations rejuvenated by existential threats frequently roar back as mighty powers, just the way Germany and Japan did after WWII. One last word about Russia: it re-introduced nuclear threats into East-West relations, but it did so poorly by repeatedly drawing lines that have been crossed. There has been no real escalation in readiness on the Russian side. While it certainly remains possible, it’s the silent bear you need to worry about, not the grunting one.

Although China hasn’t suffered the same humiliation that Russia has, it seems to be past its peak as well. The Zero COVID policy was an economic and social disaster that led to mass unrest and its end was utterly mismanaged. With Russia’s failure in Ukraine, Qi is forced to question his prospects for invading Taiwan while the West’s turn away from China has become even more urgent as its troubles with COVID cement the idea of China as an unreliable trading partner. Worse still, China has finally turned the corner to the other side of its demographic bubble and its population began contracting in 2022. It will be many generations before it is on the upswing again.

I don’t feel like I know enough about the global south, so I’ll skip that. But all this indicates that the 2020s are going to be very different than the 2010s. The Eastern European nations and Turkey will become increasingly important as Russia, Western Europe, and China are spent. It’s still unclear to me what countries outside of Europe will replace the BRICs, but no doubt there will be some surprising times afoot in this coming decade. Even if everyone may throw up their arms at this, the US—disregarding all its troubles—is likely to come out of the decade in a position of strength simply because of resources, population, a lack of real threats on its borders, and the existing geopolitical order. Much of this was foretold in geopolitical forecaster George Friedman’s 2011 book The Next 100 Years. Crucially, he repeatedly points out that no matter how violent disagreements between parties within the US really seem, the underlying policy doesn’t shift as much as it might appear it would, so notwithstanding Putin’s useful idiot in the White House, the US not only didn’t leave NATO, they left it stronger by forcing smaller countries to increase their defense spending; likewise, when Democrats took power in 2022, the US’s newly aggressive policy toward China didn’t really change. If you are interested in geopolitics, it’s worth a look.

III. Network Culture, RIP

Even as life is recovering and momentum is returning, there has been a renewed economic crisis throughout much of the world. Some of it is thanks to larger macroeconomic factors, e.g olb War, but much of it has to do with mistakes in economic policy—goosing of the market for far too long with loose monetary policy, quantitative easing, the misguided 2017 tax cuts, and too much pandemic relief. But the real cause is the end of a technological and economic cycle that began 20 or 30 years ago (depending on how we measure it) and had its heyday in the 2010s with the vaunted FAANG stocks (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, Google) growing about ten times faster than the rest of the market and driving equity markets to new highs. Over 2022, Facebook/Meta is down roughly 65%, Amazon and Netflix are down over 51%, Google/Alphabet is down 40%, Apple is down 29%, and FAANG adjacent stock Tesla is down 68%. Bitcoin, itself, which isn’t a stock but rather a Ponzi scheme, is down 64%, the S&P Cryptocurrency Large Cap index is down a massive 69%, and we all know how things ended for Sam Bankman-Fried and SBF. Compare this to the Vanguard Consumer Staples Index Fund, which never ran up as high, but is down a mere 3.69%.

This terrible tech performance, particularly in cryptocurrency, is indicative of a speculative bubble deflating, but it also points to a generational shift in technology. I am not an absolute believer in Kondratieff waves—long economic waves based on technological development that writers from Carlota Perez to Fredric Jameson have embraced—they seem too deterministic to me, but there is also some macroeconomic sense to them. New technologies drive speculative investment, which results in returns that seek more investments of a similar kind. After a while, overinvestment leads to bloat, the bubble bursts, and the economic system declines precipitously. The sharing economy, Web 2.0, and that branding abomination, “Web3” are finished. And with the end of this system, so is its cultural logic, network culture.

I first wrote about network culture in the mid-2000s and my first piece on the topic came out in our book Networked Publics. You can read the original version here and a revised version here. This piece has been translated into numerous languages: Lithuanian, Hungarian, Spanish, Chinese, and others (I’ve lost track at this point). I started a book on the topic immediately thereafter but I wasn’t able to finish it due to external factors beyond my control and a debacle at the publisher. You can read various spin-offs in “Forced Exposure. Networks and the Poetics of Reality,” in Jo-Anne Greene, Networked. A Networked Book about Networked Art on, “History After the End. Network Culture and Atemporality,” Cornell Journal of Architecture 8, spring 2011, “Simultaneous Environments,” in Mark Shepard’s, Sentient City: Ubiquitous Computing, Architecture, and the Future of Urban Space, and in “Architecture of Financialization,” Perspecta 47, 2014 (in the coming days, I will post all these pieces to my site).

The basic idea of network culture came out of my frustration that academics were still using Fredric Jameson’s “Postmodernism, or the Logic of Late Capitalism” over twenty years after it had been published, long after that epoch was finished. Jameson was never able to see past this, but a number of us did. Some other words were thrown around like metamodernism and post-postmodernism, but “network culture” made sense to me, indicating that there was a new cultural logic that was now based on relationships and connections primarily mediated by the Internet. As I wrote then, “Increasingly, the immaterial production of information and its distribution through the network is the dominant organizational principle for the global economy.” As Manuel Castells concluded in The Rise of the Network Society networks now supplant hierarchies and the production of information and the transmission of that information on networks is the key organizing factor in the world economy today. On a territorial and even geopolitical scale, Saskia Sassen pointed out in The Global City, megolpolises dominated, linked together by high-speed telecommunications networks, producing the financial and media operations that made the network economy thrive.

Network society was a globalizing society, what Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri called “Empire” and network culture was a global culture: subcultures and local undergrounds began to decline. In an economy dominated by sharing, cultural mixing, and rapid wealth generation, the idea of the artist as a cultural elite was largely replaced by an interest in participation and remix. And yet, art could also be tremendously valuable as venture capital relentlessly sought new outlets. NFTs were the logical outcome of all this, removing artistic merit in favor of pure speculation—especially from people who didn’t know what they were doing with art or investment—led to the creation of an utterly bogus $11 billion market of which over $800 million is stupid looking apes that look like they are waiting to audition for a Gorillaz video game.

NFTs and the Boring Ape Club were, however, the last gasp of network culture, a decadent last spurt that only proved the system was spent. The signs of cultural change are around us. Network culture is dying. Social media is not coming back, not in its traditional form. Just 7% of teenagers say they use Facebook constantly. Nobody on Earth, besides Mark Zuckerberg, wants to wear a VR headset to have a meeting in a virtual office full of amputated refugees from a rip-off of a Pixar movie. TikTok is popular, but I would be surprised if there aren’t massive restrictions or even an outright ban put in place by governments by the end of 2023. Twitter is in freefall. The world’s richest man has proven to be the world’s biggest idiot by spending a staggering $44 billion dollars on a site that was already in trouble and cementing it’s demise by acting like an idiot. These sites are not coming back. The one site that seems to absorb the attention of youth today—TikTok is much more like Youtube—a platform for consumption—rather than a traditional social media site and is under constant threat by Western regulators. The beginning of the end really happened in 2016. If on the one hand, Trump rose to power due to network culture—heavily employing social media and viral memes to mobilize followers—he also embodied the discontent with globalization that had always been there, but that had achieved a new fever pitch as the system spent itself.

Back in 2010 Bruce Sterling (in “Atemporality for the Creative Artist”) and I (“The Decade Ahead“) predicted that this epoch he and I called network culture would last at least ten years. I wrote: “Toward the end of the decade, there will be signs of the end of network culture. It’ll have had a good run of 30 years: the length of one generation. It’s at that stage that everything solid will melt into air again, but just how, I have no idea.” COVID was the break, and, after those ten years became “the decade of shit,” nobody is going to miss network culture. In retrospect, the 2000s were the decade of excitement, of forging new connections across age-old boundaries while finding old friends, of a world that had promise and was still imbued with the utopic promises of the early Internet and open source culture. The 2010s showed us just how toxic network culture could get, as both right (and left!) sought to squash dissent and get their minions in line. Hitler and Stalin would be proud of their descendants. A medium designed for utopic levels of human connectivity hurtled us toward civilizational collapse. That a disease spread by globalization and exacerbated by lies on social media (e.g. the anti-vax movement) ended all this is not surprising. We are lucky it wasn’t something worse.

IV. The Age of Desiring Machines

What comes after? My writing on network culture came a good way into that cultural epoch. Writing about this early is guaranteed to fail, but there were interesting if still premature, signs in 2022. First, there is the rise of Mastodon and decentralized communication. I have outlined my thoughts on this topic earlier, but suffice it to say, something new is in the works, a form of social media that hues closer to the original intent of the Internet. It may be that Mastodon always remains a small player in the net, but smallness is its strength. We need to bring back undergrounds and subcultures, not giant corporate meeting places that spread toxicity.

2022 has also been marked by the rise of “Artificial Intelligences” capable of producing text and images. I have explored these extensively and continue to do so. Ignore the horrific kitsch you see produced by these things, or better yet, don’t: the world of Deviantart and Artstation is bad, a byproduct of network culture permeated by simplistic online fan culture, NFTs were always stupid, now anybody can make things like that and this stuff is valueless. Good!

But calling ChatGPT, Midjourney, or Dall-E “intelligent” is wrong. These platforms have no ability to comprehend what they are doing. But might they be desiring machines? In the Deleuzean sense, a “desiring machine” is formed out of connections: every machine (or entity) is connected to another machine and in turn to another. This desire is not just about wanting something, but also about the process of becoming and creating through connections and that Is exactly what these platforms do. Responses to our prompts are based on the machine’s prediction of what a correct response would be. In other words, these systems are characterized by their desire to fulfill our desires. This is all very far from artificial general intelligence—although a baby crying for food is also far from a scientist or even a toddler in its ability to reason—but it is something new. There are a lot of unknowns here: we may already be at the end of the rapidly rising part of the S curve for these systems, or we may only be at the beginning. Either way, there is a reckoning in store for cultural producers and mid-level professionals producing banal work that will cause massive disruption.

There has been a lot of useless noise about the ability of these platforms to create fakes and I’ve played with that in my art, but where did we go wrong as educators? What happened to the idea that we should think critically? Wasn’t art history, as codified by Wölfflin, literally a matter of finding out how to authenticate something? Isn’t that what we learned in high school? Who are these people who have forgotten that “critical thinking” doesn’t mean blindly accepting whatever you see but rather that it means taking a critical distance from a text or an image?

Disruption is the key for the next few years, during which the outlines of a new cultural logic will begin to become apparent. The future is likely to be in terms of exacerbating the dictum attributed to cyberpunk writer William Gibson: “The future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed.” Don’t expect a utopic condition from new technologies and don’t expect the rise of socialism. Everyone is out to grab what they can. I am older and less optimistic than I was ten years ago, less prone to see the spectre of capital behind everything but also less prone to think anything can change that much. As the second season of White Lotus just emphasized, the upcoming generation is as confused, toxic, and prone to gaslighting and self-deceit as the previous ones. Colossal numbers of kids are being medicated, and while some small percentage need it, the amount of medication psychiatrists dispense needlessly is staggering. Russia’s barbaric invasion of Ukraine, the American Right’s refusal to condemn an insurrection that imperiled democracy, and the thoroughgoing denial of climate change (this essay was written during downtime from a ski vacation that is ending in a massive rainstorm) prove that too many humans are still bastards.

In the meantime, I’ll keep working on the design of my 1/2 acre (1/5 hectare) native plant garden, my art, and my writing—most especially on this blog, where the only thing that can impede my publishing is me. I’d love to get new commissions, but if not, there’ll be more to come on this site. Let’s hope 2023 is a better one. I think it will be, but I don’t expect miracles. Let’s hope the new cultural logic is at least as interesting, but less toxic than network culture. That would be quite an accomplishment right there.