Surviving the atemporality of internet technology by becoming multi-temporal

Becoming ‘multi-temporal’, rather than multi-cultural: it used to be a very big problem for historians that they supposedly could not divide themselves from the outlooks and interests of their own age. I think we are approaching a situation where the outlooks and interests of our own age make very little sense. They just don’t bind us to anything in particular. We don’t have a coherent outlook or interest that can enslave us. This means we are closer to a potentially objective history than anybody has ever been.

Excerpted from Bruce Sterling:

” There are new asynchronous communication forms that are globalized and offshored, and there is the loss of a canon and a record. There is no single authoritative voice of history. Instead we get wildly empowered cranks, lunatics, and every kind of long-tail intellectual market appearing in network culture. Everything from brilliant insight to scurillous rumor.

This really changes the narrative, and the organized presentations of history in a way that history cannot recover from. This is the source of our gnawing discontent.

It means the end of post-modernism. It means the end of the New World Order, which is about civilizing the entire planet, stopping all the land wars, repressing the terrorism. It means the end of the Washington Consensus of the nineteen nineties. It means the end of the WTO. It means the end of Francis Fukuyama’s ‘End of History’; it ended. And it’s moving in a completely different and unexpected direction.

The idea that history ended, and that the market sorts that out, and that the Pentagon bombs it if that doesn’t work – it’s gone. The situation now is one of growing disorder. A failed state, a potentially failed globe, a collapsed WTO, a collapsed Copenhagen, financial collapses, lifeboat economics, transition to nowhere. Historical narrative, it is simply no longer mapped onto the objective facts of the decade. The maps in our hands don’t match the territory, and that’s why we are upset.

Now, a new master narrative could arise on paper. That would be easy. On paper, if it were just a matter of paper, we could do it. But to do that via the Internet is about as likely as the Internet becoming a single state-controlled television channel. Because a single historical narrative is a paper narrative.

I don’t think we are going to get one. We could conceivably get a new ideology or a new business model that is able to seize control of the course of events and reinstate some clear path to progress, that gets a democratic consensus behind it. I don’t think that’s likely. At least not for ten years. I could be wrong, but it’s not on the near-term radar.

What we are facing over a decade is a decade of emergency rescue, of resiliency, of attempts at sustainability, rather than some kind of clear march toward advanced heights of civilization. We are into an era of decay and repurposing of broken structures, of new social inventions within networks, a world of ‘Gothic High-Tech’ and ‘Favela Chic’ (as I’ve called it), a crooked networked bazaar of history and futurity, rather than a cathedral of history, and a utopia of futurity.

That’s just the situation on the ground. I don’t want to belabor this point. I don’t want to go on and on about the fact that this is a new historical situation. If you don’t get it by now, you will be forced to get it; you will have no other choice.

The question is: now what? Given that we have atemporal organized representations of verbal structures, what can we actually do? Where is the fun part?

Where is the fun part? And I think there could be some, actually. We are living in an atemporal network culture, and I don’t think that requires a moral panic. I think it ought to be regarded as something like moving into a new town.

We’ve moved into a new town, and the first order of business is like : ok, what gives around here? Well, there seems to be this sort of decayed castle, and there’s also a lot of slums…. That’s not the sort of thing which requires a punk ‘no-future’ rage. Like: ‘You’ve taken away my future, and I am going to kill you, or kill myself, and throw a brick at a cop!’ I don’t really think that is helpful.

What’s needed here is like a kind of atemporality that’s like agnosticism. Just a calm, pragmatic, serene skepticism about the historical narratives. I mean: they just don’t map onto what is going on.

So how do we just — like — sound out our new scene? What can we do to liven things up, especially as creative artists?

Well, the immediate impulse is going to be the ‘Frankenstein Mashup.’ Because that’s the native expression of network culture. The “Frankenstein mashup” is to just take elements of past, present, and future and just collide ‘em together, in sort of a collage. More or less semi-randomly, like a Surrealist “exquisite corpse.”

You can do useful and interesting things in that way, but I don’t really think that offers us a great deal. Even when it’s done very deftly, it tends to lead to the kind of levelling blandness of ‘world music.’ That kind of world music that’s middle-of-the-road disco music which includes pygmy nose-flutes or sitars.

The kind of thing is tragically easy to do, but not really very effective. It’s cheap to do. It’s very punk rock. It’s very safety pins and plastic bags. But it’s missing a philosophical high-end, really an atemporal meaning of life. High-art.

And I would like to see some of that. I think there is a large hole there that could be filled, from an atemporal perspective. Not at the lowest end of artistic expression, but way up at the top philosophical end.

Then there are things like that increasing vogue we have for ‘lost futures’: steampunk, atompunk, dieselpunk. You’re finding earlier methods of production, pretending that they’d never become defunct, and then adding on to those. I would add to those: you could do a lot of good work with the materiality of dead regimes and also with colonialism.

These have been hobby activities, and even sci-fi fan activities, I think they could be classed up very considerably.

Then there are other elements which are native to our period that didn’t really work before, such as generative art. I take generative art quite seriously. I’d like to see it move into areas like generative law, or may be generative philosophy. The thing I like about generative art is that it drains human intentionality out of the art project.

Say, in generative manufacturing, you are writing code for a computer fabricator, and you yourself don’t know the outcome of this code. You do not know how it will physically manifest itself. Therefore you end up with creative objects that are bleached of human intent.

Now there is tremendous artistic intent — within the software. But the software is not visible in the finished generative product. To me, it’s of great interest that these objects and designs and animations and so forth now exist among us. Because they are, in a strange way, divorced from any kind of historical ideology. They are just not human.

There are potential and new forms of collaborative art that have no single authors. Open source arts, multiplayer arts, multimedia collaboration. Online world building is of great interest. That was not physically possible before. It’s something we can do that nobody else can do.

I am listing these methods; some of them will work, some of them will turn out to be dead-ends. The thing that interests me is that they could be done from this particular perspective, and they can be fresh.

The ‘pre-distressed antique futurity’. William Gibson wrote about this when we was writing about atemporality, associating it with his ‘Zero History’ novel that he is working on. Gibson was saying that if you have a genuinely avant garde idea, something that’s really new, you should write about it or create about it as if it were being read twenty years from now. In other words, if you want to do this, you want to strip away the sci-fi chrome, the sense of wonder. You want it to be antique before it hits the page or the screen. Imagine that it was twenty years gone into the future. Just approach it from that perspective.

No longer allow yourself to be hypnotized by the sense of technical novelty. Just refuse to go there. Accept that it is already passe’, and create it from that point of view. Try to make it news that stays news.

Refuse the awe of the future. Refuse reverence to the past. If they are really the same thing, you need to approach them from the same perspective.”

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